A Month of Chilean Rebellion: Whither the Constituent Assembly?

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The massive uprising in Chile has entered its second month. However, two of the demonstrators’ main demands have not been met: the dismissal of President Piñera and the convening of a constituent assembly. What’s next?

The mass uprising in Chile has entered its second month. On the one hand, there has been brutal repression as the police and military try to crush the uprising. Over 200 people have been blinded in one or both eyes by the police who have targeted protesters with rubber coated bullets. Many people have also been killed by the police, though the exact number is unclear. While the government has attempted to quell the uprising with force, there are also attempts to co-opt and pacify the movement. President Sebastián Piñera, for example, has offered concessions, including higher pensions and a higher minimum wage. However, two of the protesters’ primary demands have not been met: the ouster of President Piñera, who is ultimately responsible for the deaths and repression of protesters, and the convening of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, which has kept in place much of the structure of the Pinochet military dictatorship.

Despite these attempts to pacify the population, the Chilean people have continued to take to the streets, and just last week there was another general strike. But the latest attempt at co-option has been supported by many political parties—including those considered progressive.

The right-wing coalition Chile Vamos (Let’s Go Chile), the center-left parties of the former Concertación, the Liberal Party, and most of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) signed the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution,” which is designed to prevent the collapse of the regime as a result of class struggle. This arrangement will keep Piñera in power until the protesters’ central demands are met—if they are met at all. This agreement would establish a referendum in April to decide if and how a new constitution would be written. All of the options for a new constitution that are currently being proposed are insufficient, since they are designed to maintain the regime’s control over the structure of any future constitution.

The first question on the referendum planned for April 2020 is “Approval of a New Constitution.” If this option wins, it could result in either a “Mixed Constitutional Convention” made up of members of the current Congress and others elected specifically to the convention, or a “Constitutional Convention” wholly made up of people elected specifically to this convention, which would then draft a new constitution. Both choices not only entail an adaptation to the existing regime but also reveal an attempt by those from above to impose a consensus that prevents those from below from breaking through and imposing their own solution.

Why the Proposal for a New Constitution? 

The regime is rushing to set up a trap with the farce of a new constitution agreed to by the powers that be. Advocating for an absolute and closed defense of the existing constitution, as José Antonio Kaste from the far-right Republican Party does, has been unsustainable for the government and the regime. This is why this new proposal is on the table.

The agreement states that the parties that sign it “pledge their commitment to reestablishing peace and public order in Chile in total respect for human rights and the democratic institutions in place.” 

What the document fails to mention, however, is the current government’s determination to achieve that peace and public order has so far been through the use of police violence, torture, illegal detentions, and sexual assault. Just hours after the peace agreement, a young man died of a heart attack in the Plaza de la Dignidad (the rechristened Plaza Italia in Santiago) because the Carabineros (national police) prevented the arrival of the ambulance and fired tear gas. But if the government has chosen the path of this agreement, it is because it comes with less political cost than a new state of emergency, which would require a broadening of the army’s powers.

Respect for the Constituted Powers and the Barriers of the Possible

Those who defend the agreement say that this is a “constituent assembly process.” But according to clause V of the proposed agreement, the constitutional assembly will not impinge “on the competences or attributes of the other organs or branches of the government” while the new constitution is being drafted. In essence, this means that the political regime will remain intact until at least July or even October 2021, depending on how long it takes to draft the new constitution via the various forms of “Constitutional Convention.”

Remarkably, the “agreement” states that members of either form of constitutional convention will follow “the electoral system for the election of deputies … in the corresponding proportion,” and that the parties that have signed the agreement “will designate a Technical Commission that will determine all the aspects of the constituent process,” the composition of which will “be proportionally designated by the governing and opposition coalitions.” If the same system used in the election of deputies operates here, thousands of activists and social leaders will be excluded beforehand from being elected (as well as those under 18, who initiated the rebellion), and any chance to influence this will be left in the hands of the regime’s parties, which will negotiate all aspects necessary for the realization of this agreement. 

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And what became of the idea of convening a constituent assembly? Nobody knows. To call this “convention” a “constituent assembly” does not make it so. From the moment that it is subordinated to the existing political powers, it is no longer a constituent assembly; it is a renouncement of popular sovereignty and a denial of the expression of the general will. Some time ago, Christian Castillo and Emilio Albamonte quoted Toni Negri’s “Constituent Power” to refer to these kinds of absurdities:

How can a normative fact validated by custom do justice to innovation? How can a pre-constituted “political class” be the guarantor of a new constitution? Already the effort of enclosing constituent power in a cage of spatiotemporal limitation was unsustainable, but: Any attempt to block it by giving it finality becomes downright inconceivable. One can try to minimize the impact of the event, but certainly it is not possible to define its innovative singularity in advance.

The November 12 Strike and the Perspective for a General Strike

Why hasn’t Pinera fallen after a whole month of protests and intermittent general strikes? Why isn’t there a constituent assembly built by the rank and file in struggle? To answer this, we need to analyze how the class struggle has developed during this process.

The announcement of the “Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution” on the evening of November 14 came after a powerful general strike shut down the country. The establishment parties had become desperate to co-opt and contain the uprising, and so, on November 14, the agreement was announced.

In a recent article, we wrote in La Izquierda Diario that the strike could take two roads:

(A) If it is a decisive action, with clear militant determination from the workers, with greater elements of coordination between different sectors, it can provide the impetus for a general strike that does not last a day or two, but indefinitely. A strike that, in addition to taking place in the strategic sectors of the economy such as mining or the port sector, gives the working class sufficient freedom of action to organize itself, to coordinate with the student movement and the women’s movement, and to elaborate a plan of struggle with the objective of overthrowing the Piñera government and the regime of the dictatorship. A strike that allows for the discussion of political objectives in the developing bodies of self-organization, objectives such as the convening of a Constituent Assembly.

(B) Or it can remain part of the calculations of the bureaucratic leaders of the Social Unity Roundtable and the parties of the opposition, who use the mass demonstrations in their strategy of pressuring the regime and keeping Piñera in power by letting him stay on as interlocutor, as we explained above.

But what happened on November 12 and the following days is more contradictory and not simply limited to these two hypotheses.

The strike was a “decisive action” against the government with “clear militant determination,” but precisely for that reason, the parties of the regime, aided by those of the former Concertación, and the Liberal Party, Democratic Revolution, and Gabriel Boric of the Frente Amplio, rushed to seek a political solution that would not threaten the institutions of the regime.

On November 12, large numbers of people took part in work stoppages across the country, and the strike interrupted economic and daily life in Chile’s most important cities. Furthermore, some of the workers who marched that day remained on the streets with the youth, unlike on October 23 and 30, when workers were more separated from the youth. 

But the working class still failed to use their strength to intervene as a differentiated subject, even though the dockworkers and miners had already gone on strike against the government and the sanitation workers are now doing likewise. In other words, they are participating in the struggle, but usually as concerned citizens, not as the people who hold the levers of power and can shut the entire system down. This is because the union bureaucracies are hindering the development of the spirit of struggle against the government, and they have so far refused to call for an indefinite general strike and a plan of struggle that is discussed with the rank and file.

The combative spirit of the youth and the community is very clear, as demonstrated by the clashes with the police on November 12. In one town, an army barracks was attacked and in another, a police station. If the working class overcomes its bureaucratic leaderships, direct conflict with the forces of the state could dramatically increase.

In the workplace, nothing has been the same since the first general strike: The arrogance and arbitrariness of the bosses and the miserable working conditions they impose are being questioned to varying degrees. In this context, the November 12 strike could be the impulse for a general strike that, in addition to taking place in the strategic sectors of the economy, gives the working class sufficient freedom of action to organize itself and to broaden its political objectives by taking into its own hands the discussion around the ways to move toward a constituent assembly.

Police Power

On the other hand, the police have unleashed mass violence on protesters. The right wing of the government, such as José Antonio Kast, believe that the army has already been humiliated, the government has already handed too much over to the street, and nothing else should be handed over in political or social terms. What they want is to further broaden the powers of the Carabineros and military.

The Carabineros’ General Rozas declared that he will not decommission any Carabinero—even if they are being investigated for human rights violations. This is a sign that the executive power no longer has full control over the Carabineros. It also brings to mind what philosopher Walter Benjamin said about the police in “Critique of Violence”:

The ignominy of such an authority, which is felt by few simply because its ordinances suffice only seldom for the crudest acts, but are therefore allowed to rampage all the more blindly in the most vulnerable areas and against thinkers, from whom the state is not protected by law—this ignominy lies in the fact that in this authority the separation of lawmaking and law-preserving violence is suspended. If the first is required to prove its worth in victory, the second is subject to the restriction that it may not set itself new ends. Police violence is emancipated from both conditions. It is lawmaking, for its characteristic function is not the promulgation of laws but the assertion of legal claims for any decree, and law-preserving, because it is at the disposal of these ends.

Put it another way: It is pointless to argue with the police. It is impossible to reason with them about people’s constitutional rights or argue that their violence is excessive. Violence is inherent to their character; they will exceed their own powers and interpret the law as they see fit, and use the fact that they are one of the institutions that control the state’s monopoly of arms to their advantage. This is not a problem of protocol or excess but of the very character of what the police are.

The fact that this is happening every day across Chile is a clear sign of a Bonapartization of the political regime. So too is the fact that on the night of November 12, according to some media reports, the army refused to participate in a new state of emergency if it did not have a guarantee that it would not be accused of subsequent human rights violations. They wanted to avoid being ridiculed again and to have the option of using deadly force so as to avoid a loss of authority. For now, that option was rejected. But this “relative autonomy” of the police and military apparatus speaks of an important change in Chilean politics, one that involves preparations for increasingly convulsive conflicts.

The Urgency of Self-Organization and a Revolutionary Party of the Working Class

The respect for the “existing democratic institutions” expressed in the clauses of the agreement means that after a month of rebellion, the political forces of the regime have opted to preserve themselves and try to stave off the demands that target the legacy of the dictatorship. The constitutional change that they want to make—granting veto power to the right wing—is signed in the blood of the murdered victims of the regime.

It is unknown just how long the more active presence of the police and military apparatus will persist in political life and how long their provocative presence in the streets will last. In our opinion, we cannot rule out the possibility that the situation will take new turns that will give greater or lesser weight to state violence. But whatever happens, the expansion of organizations such as the Emergency and Protection Committee in Antofagasta and initiatives such as the meeting of workers, women, and youth at the Barros Luco Hospital on November 9 are already a necessity. Both have seen meetings of over 800 participants from different workplaces, education centers and various neighborhoods, and the bringing together of teachers, workers, high school students, university students, health workers, and organizations like the NO+AFP in Antofagasta, to discuss everything from safety and first aid at demonstrations to the political perspective of bringing down the Piñera government. They are also calling for a constituent assembly and, as demanded by the mass organizations of the Social Unity Roundtable, calling for a “general strike.” These are two examples of self-organization that have in part been advanced and promoted by the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR), and they are part of a series of pioneering experiences of territorial assemblies and “cordones” that have developed from north to south, seeking to overcome the routine methods that the union bureaucracies impose.

A general strike and a plan of struggle will require that the movement’s fighting capacity take a leap forward. Thinking about this problem requires breaking with the official account that distinguishes between two types of demonstrators: the peaceful protesters and the hooligans. The strike on November 12 is a great example of a militant strike that needs to be further developed. For that, it is necessary for the workers themselves, together with the community, to discuss the steps to be taken to establish a plan of struggle for a general strike. This will leave us less susceptible to police operations. At the same time it will allow the force of the working class to enter into the class struggle as a new factor, one that both shuts down the economy and allows for the specific abilities of workers in strategic areas, such as public transport, the ports, the mines, the forestry industry, and the financial system, to be made available to the struggle in the streets. It is only when these central battalions of the working class enter the stage that we will be able to realize the call for a constituent assembly on the ruins of the existing regime.

Revolutionary Marxists believe that such developing bodies of self-organization will become the foundation of a workers’ republic. This is not the same as a constituent assembly, which, as Trotsky pointed out, is “an institution of the bourgeois state.” But as long as the majority of the working class does not see the need for a workers’ government that breaks with capitalism, which is especially the case in Chile today, after decades of no “great independent actions of the masses,” we urge using the slogan “For a free and sovereign constituent assembly now!” We emphasize that it must be “on the ruins of the regime” because it allows us to differentiate ourselves from the strategy of people like Catalina Pérez of Democratic Revolution and Gabriel Boric of Social Convergence, who consider the April 2020 referendum, which will eventually call a constitutional convention a year later, to be a great achievement, while the AFP private pension funds, the various ISAPRE private health insurance schemes, and the pharmaceutical companies. At the same time, the agents of repression go unpunished, and the institutions of the constitution of 1980 remain intact. The general strike and a plan of struggle and self-organization can enter the scene as factors that tip the balance and allow us to convene this constituent assembly on the ruins of the regime and prepare for the reaction of the extreme right and the polarization that may arise within the military and police forces with the development of organizations of self-defense.

In 1938 Trotsky hypothesized that under the Hitler government “factory committees […] will appear before the old routinists rush from their chancelleries to organize trade unions” and that “soviets will cover Germany before a new Constituent Assembly will gather in Weimar.” Similarly, under a government like that of Piñera—of pre-Bonapartist and nonfascist character—the possible development of self-organization is posed even more strongly, and there are already certain initial experiences underway.

Without a transitional program that combines both democratic and anti-capitalist tasks and articulates the struggle for power through working-class self-organization, it will always be the established powers that will impose their limits on any constituent assembly process. Without a transitional program, it will never be the people who set the rules. Strictly speaking, calling for a truly free and sovereign constituent assembly is unthinkable without simultaneously promoting the extension of self-organization, the general strike, and a plan of struggle. To realize the aspirations of the people and leave these “30 years” behind is simply unthinkable without a workers’ government that breaks with capitalism.

This conception is directly linked to the construction of an alternative socialist, working class political project to the left of those that are part of the regime (such as the Frente Amplio and the Communist Party). It is to such a project that Ideas Socialistas (Socialist Ideas) and the Revolutionary Workers Party (PTR) seek to contribute.

Translation: Sean Robertson

First published in Spanish on November 19, 2019, in Ideas Socialistas, the Theoretical, Political and Cultural Supplement of La Izquierda Diario Chile.

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