Pierina Ferretti: “The Left doesn't know how to work with the conservatism of the working classes”
InterviewIn this interview with IRGAC, sociologist and Fundación Nodo XXI member Pierina Ferretti provides an analysis of recent events in Chile — from the mass uprisings that took to the streets of the country in 2019 against the neoliberal government and the construction of a new constitution that promised to be the most advanced in terms of popular rights in all of Latin America, to the defeat of the new constitution in the September 2022 plebiscite and finally the election of a far-right majority to the constitutional council that will have to rewrite the proposal to replace the Pinochet-era constitution. “It’s not that the Chilean people are schizophrenic and first voted for the left and then for the far right just like that. It’s that six years ago we were excluding almost half of the Chilean people from the analysis.”
In 2019, Chile came to be seen as a “breath of renewal and change” in the face of the authoritarian turn in Latin America. So I guess the first question couldn’t be any other than this: How did Chileans go from protesting and supporting such a truly progressive project of a constitution to supporting the far right?
I think we have to look at the different dimensions of the issue. The protests of 2019 expressed a social discontent that is real, an indignation toward the political and economic reality of the country, which continues to exist and continues to be a kind of background in Chilean society. A social discontent accumulated over decades and that has become stronger, more acute, more unbearable. There are people who cannot pay for healthcare, young people who have to go into debt in order to study, a repeated sense that power has been abused and that political and economic groups act with impunity. All this is real — it was so in 2019 and still is. And it is a society that receives no response from the political system.
So what happened between the plebiscite in 2020, where 80 percent supported constitutional change, the resounding rejection of the draft for a new constitution in 2022, and this first round victory of a far-right in 2023? There are various things to consider. The first is that all the conclusions we made about the process were based on the result of the first plebiscite, in 2020, yet the 80 percent vote in favour of a new constitution was based on huge levels of abstention. For this plebiscite, which was the most important vote of the last 30 years in Chile, half the country abstained from voting, and the 50 percent that did vote had a different composition than in previous elections. But the results were so overwhelming, 80 percent in favour of a new constitution and 20 percent opposed, it all seemed so clear, and the truth is that we should have looked at this data more carefully.
The second thing to consider is that when the first constitutional convention was elected in 2021, we celebrated with great excitement and joy and a sense of triumph, as that convention had swept away the right wing. The right had become completely irrelevant because it had so few constituents that it couldn’t do anything, and that also happened with the traditional centre-left parties. The constitutional convention was filled with feminists, environmentalists, territorial activists, native peoples, left-wing parties that hadn’t had much power before. But this was the election in which the fewest people participated in the last 30 years: 42 percent of the people voted. 60 percent of Chile did not follow this process, did not feel called, represented, committed. So I think there was a certain inability on our part to read honestly, without blind enthusiasm, what was objectively happening. Nor did we read well that a few months after the constitutional convention was elected, Jose Antonio Kast won the first round of the general elections. The far-right won! Then Gabriel Boric won in the second round, but something was happening underground in Chilean society that we were not seeing.
There is also an element of context that we cannot disregard. Parts of Chile have seen very intense immigration. It is not a large number of people in relation to world migration statistics, but there was a migratory movement that was exceptional in its intensity. And it wasn’t efficiently handled by public policy. This generated a series of tensions between Chileans from working-class neighbourhoods and migrants, and there was an increase in racism, chauvinism, etc. On the other hand, criminality has also increased and the presence of transnational criminal groups has appeared in an undeniable way, the number of murders with torture has increased, and this has had an impact on the working classes and on the reinforcement of conservative or authoritarian tendencies, and of course the far-right knows how to capitalize on this very well. So the plebiscite that we lost took place in a context of insecurity, and this ended up influencing public opinion. And then there is also the economic crisis, inflation, and popular unease. The left is in power, so it is the target of this social discontent, as every government is.
Another important point to note is that both the voting in the plebiscite on 4 September  and the election of new constituents [in May 2023] were held for the first time in a compulsory voting system. This brought a huge amount of people who had not voted before to the polls. They didn’t vote in the plebiscite [in 2020], and they didn’t vote in the constituent election [in 2021]. They also didn’t come back to vote in the second round — and this was the most polarized election, it was Boric vs Kast.
With the introduction of compulsory voting for the plebiscite, 5 million new voters were added. Almost all of these people voted against the constitution, and a good part of them voted for the extreme right. This part of Chilean society that had not expressed its political preferences in the elections, and that is now obliged to vote, is a fundamentally working-class and very depoliticized group on the social fringe. The right wing knows how to capitalize on citizens’ fear, they stir up anxieties about issues like delinquency and immigration, and they have a hard, heavy-handed discourse regarding crime and public safety. The [left-wing party coalition] Frente Amplio attracted an electorate that used to vote centre left and now votes for the new, young left, but that doesn’t mean that this new left has the full approval of the working classes. The left does not know how to work with this social material, with this authoritarian subjectivity, more conservative, which responds defensively to progressive social changes. It could also perfectly well support social and economic reforms in favour of the working-class camp, but at the same time it rejects more advanced cultural dimensions like feminism.
The introduction of compulsory voting caused an earthquake. It’s not that the Chilean people are schizophrenic and first voted for the left and then for the extreme right just like that. It is that three years ago, we were excluding almost half of the Chilean people from the analysis. And when this half appears, it causes a political earthquake and reveals a reality that we didn’t want to see, because we on the left don’t have a strategy for the working class in a broad sense. A national, popular project that makes sense for the social majorities.
Do you think that the biggest mistake of the left is not having calculated or thought about these working-class sectors of the population? Was there a lack of strong grassroots work, or of political education and approach to working-class people?
This is a problem that has been dragging on for decades: the retreat of the left from working-class people and the advance of the right. The right has diversified its strategies to gain popularity: there’s the exponential increase of the conservative evangelical church, the ownership of almost all mass media, of schools and universities. Those are diversified Gramscian strategies for reaching different working-class sectors. It is a strategy to conquer not only political power, but cultural and ideological power, and we don’t have such a wide margin to produce hegemony. Our presence in the working-class field is reduced. And the classic instruments of the left are very weak, the unions are weakened, we don’t have left-wing mass media or even progressive mass media. So we are very behind in this.
For a while during the Chilean social crisis the left had a driving capacity. And the crisis led to an institutional channelling with a constituent process, which was largely an achievement of the left, the centre left of the democratic and progressive sectors of Chile. In other words, it’s a balance sheet — we made relative advances. We have achieved support from a significant part of the population. Even in the plebiscite we lost in 2022 [when the Chilean population rejected the proposal for a new constitution], we received 38 percent support. That’s the highest number the left has had in decades. When Allende won the 1970 election he did so with 30 percent of votes. The defeats have been so hard and show us how much we lack, but we also can’t lose sight of the fact that we have made real advances in certain aspects. Yet the left cannot develop its projects without the support of the working class, and they are not very feminist or very progressive in many cases. This is something that has to be built. We don’t have this machine of subjectivity production that the right has.
So you believe that the right wing, as in other countries, has managed to capitalize on this popular discontent, this frustration?
I believe that to a large extent, yes. In Chile, and in other countries, the same thing happened: the new left-wing movement that emerged, including in confrontations with the traditional centre-left, at some point came to represent the social malaise, especially with regard to the commodification of education. At the same time, when they started to constitute themselves politically, as a political party, there was hope that things would change. Once in power, the new left went from representing the rebellion of the population to being part of the institutions of power. There was a promise of change, of transformation, and when that doesn’t happen, it generates disappointment and citizens are impatient. Nobody is going to say “well, we’ll just wait another 40 years...”. And the right-wingers capitalize on that very well. You’ve had catastrophic right-wing governments with a lot of hardship and a lot of social malaise. But when the right wing is not in power, it takes on a rebellious, avenging, and noisy guise, and continues to capitalize politically, especially among the working class.
To close our conversation, how are the left and the social movements doing today? What needs to be done? How should we move forward?
I believe that in the first place, we have to admit that these were indeed very big defeats for the left and that they are also aggravated in the context of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état. Not long ago we thought that we would celebrate these 50 years with a new constitution that would sweep away the heavy interference of the dictatorship, the economic model imposed by the dictatorship, and this was a horizon that was opening up, a way out of neoliberalism, led by the left. This was the plan, and because of this the defeat had an effect on the political mood that was a little destabilizing, a little daunting for the left. And I believe that it was hard for us to get out of this daze, of this knock-out that was the defeat of the first plebiscite. It was the first institutional experience for many sectors of the social left, for environmental, feminist, territorial movements, groups from the broad social left that had never directly experienced institutional politics. They placed a lot of hope in it.
So the constitutional convention was a meeting of different groups that had been campaigning and struggling for decades in Chile. Opening up the possibility of changing the constitution in Chile took 30 years. And it was only possible because of the greatest social mobilization that we have known in a democracy. This is something we have to recognize. This possibility was opened up by the people’s struggle and it had a very high cost, material and human, and we need to look at it from a greater distance and understand the importance that this had.
At the moment the left is battered. But we have immediate tasks that cannot be delayed despite our disorganization. The primary one being to put a stop to the growth of the extreme right in Chile. It is a task of containment. And nobody really knows how to do this, but that’s what we need to do now. And on the other hand, the left that is in power must carry out a program of reforms so that after four years people can say “I am living better, not worse”. It is necessary to move in the direction of improving living conditions. And looking more broadly, as the left, we are faced with the task of reorganizing ourselves, of reorganizing a historical project that offers the country answers as to where we are going, how, what we mean by overcoming neoliberalism. And I believe that the task is to have a popular, national project that makes sense to the majority of the population. We cannot conceive of a left without the people!
*In collaboration with Börries Nehe