Chile’s Revolt Without Revolution

Can hipster socialists transform society?

Rage and repudiation. Demonstrators in Santiago on October 25, 2019. Image Credit: Pedro Ugarte /AFP.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the idea of revolution as the end point of history died a mostly peaceful death. Since the left supplied the language of democratic politics, however, the loss left behind a profound disorientation. Revolution represented true north, the final reconciliation of all contradictions toward which society supposedly trended. It gave measurability to the concept of “progress.”

Revolutionaries wished to get there quickly, in a death march; democrats rejected violence but headed for the same destination by means of incremental reform. This was a journey beyond universal suffrage and economic safety nets to the “great society”—a vague but transcendental state of affairs.

Today, the very notion of progress is held in contempt by progressives: Absent a fixed direction of change, the word is drained of content. To be a radical currently means to assume a particular emotive stance toward the ruling institutions: one of rage and repudiation. Of course, that’s true for the right no less than the left—progressives and reactionaries are, in their attitudes and rhetoric, mostly interchangeable. Both crave to bring down the temple of established authority, but have no method, or even coherent thoughts, concerning the process and its consequences.

So we come to our paradoxical moment in history: a time of troubles and transformation that lacks an intellectual framework to explain sociopolitical change. Revolts erupt from below, smash at everything that stands, then dissipate without consummation. A great deal of the anger and confusion derive from this categorical impotence. There are no signposts, no road maps—only slogans trying to do the work of ideology. “Defund the police.” “Make America great again.” These capture the rage but not the direction, much less the destination. What happens after we defund the cops? How do we know when America is great again?

The post-Soviet left is just another variety of the digital public, burdened by an ideological inheritance it can neither realistically deploy nor discard. It reads Thomas Piketty and makes noises against economic inequality, but its heart has been given to the cult of identity and climate justice, and that leads to a very different place. Instead of “the citizen” or “the proletariat”—the old beneficiaries of revolution—the cause now serves “LGBTQI+” and “the earth.” Not even the most distempered fanatic would dream of overthrowing the government to seize power on behalf of some sexual preference.

Because the anger is vast and volatile, a trivial-seeming incident can ignite a horrific conflagration. The 2019 protests in Chile, which were sparked by a 4% increase in mass transit fares, offer perhaps the best recent example of this phenomenon. Given that sliver of leverage, Chile’s insurgents have managed to achieve country-wide dominance—politically, by winning the 2021 presidential election, and structurally, by writing a new constitution. If we listen to the participants, we learn that they are democratic in orientation but militant in their hopes of transforming society and politics. A disjointed street uprising, in other words, has crested into a potentially revolutionary episode. Here let me pose a straightforward question: Is that really possible?

A Revolt in Search of a Cause

On October 1, 2019, Chile hovered on the brink of the abyss, but at the time there was no reason for anyone to suspect that. After the defeat of dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 plebiscite, the country had enjoyed an extraordinary run of political freedom, stability and prosperity. Democracy had flourished, with presidents from the left alternating peacefully with those from the right. Organizations that measure the integrity of democratic institutions—Freedom House, Transparency International, Heritage Foundation—regularly ranked Chile in the top tier.

Even more astonishing was the economic boom since the Pinochet era. According to the World Bank, income per capita in 2019 was an impressive seven times what it had been in 1988. In a generation, Chile had left behind a history of poverty and stagnant growth to become the most dynamic economy on the continent. By 2010, it had joined the OECD—first Latin American country to be invited to that cozy rich nations’ club.

On October 1, the government announced the 4% increase in mass transit fares, which went into effect five days later. On October 7, high school students in Santiago began a turnstile-jumping campaign that quickly escalated into violence and vandalism at subway stations. When police responded with brutal force, the street battles that ensued spread to the entire country and became an orgy of looting and devastation. By the end of 2019, 25 people had died while more than 2,000 had been seriously injured; property damage amounted to $2 billion, with 1,200 retail stores looted and around 80 subway stations destroyed. An estimated 300,000 were left unemployed as a result of the protests.

Despite the cost of the revolt, public opinion swung decidedly behind the street warriors and against the conservative government of President Sebastián Piñera. On October 25, a crowd of over a million gathered at the Plaza Italia in what is now habitually referred to as the largest protest in Chile’s history. Piñera’s popularity plunged to microscopic levels. He had reacted to the uprising with a tough, law-and-order stance, but almost immediately lost control of events and floundered aimlessly, a political corpse.

The parties in parliament, desperate to pacify the rebels, hammered together a package of social assistance that granted their one concrete demand: a plebiscite on drafting a new constitution. At every subsequent juncture, the public demonstrated a desire to break with the past. On October 2020, exactly a year after the start of the protests, the Pinochet-era constitution was rejected by 78% of voters. The May 2021 vote for membership in the constitutional convention favored left-leaning candidates with no connection to the ruling elites. Finally, in the presidential elections of November 2021, Gabriel Boric, a young career protester, handily defeated his right-wing opponent. With the endorsement of a large segment of the population, Chile seemed embarked on a journey of sweeping but ill-defined change.

Why the itch to repudiate? Chileans themselves often sounded uncertain. An analyst who sympathized with the protests admitted their “spontaneous character,” adding that Chileans had “surprised themselves” with their capacity to mobilize against authority. The slogans that captured the mood of the moment were catchy but vague. “Chile awoke,” the Chileans said, as if decades of democracy and prosperity could only be a dream. “It wasn’t about 30 pesos [additional subway fare] but about 30 years,” they said, but failed to specify what abuses had occurred in those years or what grievances they wished to see redressed. The troubles of 2019 became known as el estallido social—the social explosion—and that was accurate enough. A blast of violence and anger had erupted from below, rocking the country to its foundations.

For the media, the go-to explanation, then as always, was economic inequality. A New York Times editorial, for example, took it for granted that Chile’s prosperity had “accumulated mostly in the hands of a lucky few. As a result, Chile has one of the highest levels of inequality in the developed world. Now that inequality is threatening the country’s stability.” A report from the Guardian also portrayed the protests as “driven by deep-rooted disillusionment over inequality that has left millions of citizens frozen out of Chile’s economic rise” and quoted a Chilean woman as saying, “We are subjugated by the rich.” By this account, the revolt had been an instance of the class struggle.

Economic explanations tend to reflect our materialist mania more than actual causes. In the case of Chile, the economic inequality thesis just doesn’t hold up to the data. Among Latin American countries, Chile lands in the middle of the pack for inequality. Brazil and Mexico are far more unequal—and so is peaceful Costa Rica.

Far from being restricted to a “lucky few,” the economic boom purchased tremendous improvements in the standard of living of all Chileans. In the “30 years” the protesters raged against, the number of people living in extreme poverty declined precipitously—from 34.5% in 1990 to 2.5% in 2015 by one count. Illiteracy was wiped out. Infant mortality declined by nearly two-thirds. In 2019, that year of revolt, Chile’s unemployment rate was lower than that of France, Italy and Spain, while life expectancy stood higher than in the United States.

Moreover, the protesters vandalizing subway stations weren’t the poor or marginalized. They were high school students—the children of the middle class. The “popular” or lower classes participated in some of the violence and looting, along with criminal elements—but the social explosion was predominantly an uprising of affluent and educated persons whose vision of change began and ended with negation, with the urge to abolish and demolish. The conflict had nothing to do with Marxist ideas about a war between classes: Rather, it pitted a radically alienated middle class against its own leaders and the institutions they controlled.

Democracy in the Hands of Clueless Elites

The ferocious hostility of the Chilean public toward the institutional elites called into question the legitimacy of representative democracy. Public and elites appeared to inhabit separate, isolated spheres, lacking the organic pathways that could convey the interests and opinions of the public to officeholders. Elections felt like a mere reshuffling of elite faces.

From the start of the digital age, this perception of a walled-off domain of power, of a chasm between rulers and ruled, has perturbed democratic nations around the world. In the U.S., an unhappy public speaks of the “deep state” and the “1%.” Chileans refer to the “political class.” Boric, the rebel-president, talked bluntly of “elites” and added a telling word that stood at the heart of the conflict: “distance.” Alienation was a function of separation—in an over-connected society, it took much effort and more arrogance to remain somehow apart.

Even by the low standards of the tribe, the Chilean elites proved to be amazingly inept. President Piñera, a 70-year-old billionaire, floated like a helium balloon far above the teenagers rioting outside his palace. Clueless about the nature of the insurgency, he was doomed to perform the part of villain to perfection.

On October 10, the president sought to rally the nation. “We are at war with a powerful, implacable enemy that respects nothing and no one, and is willing to use violence and crime without restraint,” he said. Piñera seemed to be declaring war on the children of his constituents; predictably, the speech had the opposite effect than was intended. When asked about the president’s statement, the head of Chile’s military pointedly remarked, “I am a happy man, and I’m not at war with anyone.” By October 19, Piñera was in a fatal political tailspin, as he ended the state of emergency while tweeting disconsolately, “I have listened with humility to the voice of the people.”

The destruction of Sebastián Piñera took place on the web. Online, distance was eliminated, and the young rebels stood on the same plane with the president: He would be battered down by a constant barrage of rage and ridicule. Eight days after declaring his country at war, amid the wreckage and bloodshed, Piñera was photographed in a fancy pizzeria celebrating his grandson’s birthday. The image went viral on social media. “Nero played the lyre while Rome burned, here in Chile, Piñera eats pizza while Santiago burns,” said one of the more restrained comments. With much derision, “President Pizza” entered Chile’s history.

By 2019, the public in Chile had swept the elites off of the commanding heights over the information landscape: A crisis of the regime was bound to follow. Yet for the public there was never a moment of supreme strategic victory. There was nothing akin to Fidel Castro descending from the mountains into Havana to take control of Cuba’s government. A series of tactical clashes instead demonstrated the fragility of the structures of power, until the whole edifice came crashing down of its own dead weight.

The Rise of the Hipster Socialists

Can society and politics be transformed in depth democratically, without resorting to the secret police or the guillotine? That question confronted the 36-year-old Boric when he assumed the presidency in March of 2022.

While calling himself a “democratic socialist,” the new president embodied the confusions of the post-Soviet left. Intellectually, he had inherited a loathing of “neoliberalism”—code word for the pro-business policies largely responsible for the economic boom. But what to put in its place? A revolutionary utopia at the end of history was no longer a credible story. A Marxist-Leninist planned economy would bring to Chile all the scarcities of wretched Cuba. Was there a “democratic socialist” economic model, more equitable than neoliberalism but less incompetent, impoverishing and tyrannical than communism?

There was none. Boric fell back on an old socialist reflex and proposed to nationalize bits of the economy. As he was perfectly aware, such policies have failed many times over—Hugo Chávez, for one, rode them to the destruction of Venezuela’s oil industry. In any case, piecemeal state intervention would leave most of the economy in the hands of capitalist exploiters. If bureaucrats were better than plutocrats, why not nationalize everything in sight? Boric had no roadmap, no answers. He sought to end a system he despised but lacked coherent alternatives.

No roadmap. Chilean President Gabriel Boric has floundered during his first few months in office. Image Credit: Chandan Khanna/AFP

By age, class and education, Boric belongs to a newly evolved political species: the hipster socialist, distinct from the working-class original by a handful of prominent traits. One is a preference for the performative over the practical. The words one uses and the way one looks are the main theater of hipster politics. Institutional power—even in one’s possession—is distrusted as an engine of inequality and abuse. The ultimate objective, at all times, is not to apply power but to strike an attitude. For instance, the bearded and tattooed Boric has cited a higher principle that prevented him from ever wearing a necktie.

The essential hipster mutation, however, is a fixation on identity that transcends all issues, including economic justice. Boric sounds most authentic talking about anti-women violence, aboriginal rights and climate justice. To the hipster, democracy means proportionality. Each identity group must be represented according to its exact weight in the total population. In the election for Chile’s constitutional convention, half the seats were set aside for women, and 17 seats, variously distributed, for aboriginal groups: liberation by the numbers. Utopia is reached when proportions are perfect in all cases and at all times, regardless of other concerns (such as competence).

Revolutionaries chose hard-core loyalists to guard the levers of power: Fidel Castro, for example, made his brother Raul chief of the Cuban military. Under the same circumstances, hipsters would rather assume a virtuous pose. Boric had promised a “feminist government” and he delivered by the numbers: Women filled 14 of 24 cabinet positions. Were these the best-qualified persons to advance the government’s agenda? Under hipster rules, even to ask the question is forbidden.

The Interior Ministry, which controls the police, posed a particular dilemma for the new government. On the one hand, a wave of violent crime had swept the country in the turbulent aftermath of the social explosion. On the other, the police and the protesters now running the country were natural enemies. Boric might have appointed a tough prosecutor to crack down on criminal activity—or he could have picked a Raul Castro-style ally to keep the police in check. In typical fashion, he did neither.

The “problem of delinquency” he blamed on inequality, warning criminals that they would be confronted by “the community.” As minister of the interior, he appointed Izkia Siches, a 35-year-old surgeon and head of Chile’s medical school, who became a celebrity during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a striking symbolic move: a humanitarian doctor in charge of the police, to heal the country, figuratively, of its propensity to violence. The splendid pose was achieved.

But a government of mostly unknown and untested radicals needed to gain the public’s confidence from the start. Siches, who lacked any experience in law enforcement, soon stumbled into a series of blunders, misstatements and embarrassing situations, requiring backtracking and apologies—while crime continued to spike. She was the head of the most powerful institution in Chile but looked like a hipster playacting a minister. Deeply unpopular at present, Siches has been repurposed into a different kind of symbol: that of a government judged inert and incompetent by the majority of the public.

Boric and his administration haven’t enjoyed much of a honeymoon. Three months into his tenure, the president’s approval rating has fallen to 35%. Consumer confidence also has crashed, as the economy gets battered by inflation and the lingering effects of the pandemic. Those who detested the rebels have only hardened their opposition. Many who craved change are disenchanted with the lack of government action. Beyond ideological concerns, there is the fear that the future of Chile has been placed in the hands of a children’s crusade.

The unpopularity of the government has put in doubt the prospects for a new constitution. At 499 articles, the draft constitution exemplifies the hipster’s belief that the human condition can be redeemed through the magical force of words: If passed in its present form, it would be the longest charter of its kind in the world. “This is an ecological and equal constitution, with social rights at its very core,” boasted Maria Elisa Quinteros, president of the convention. Among the mandated rights are free education, gender equality, government responsibility for preventing climate change and possible reparations to aboriginal groups. This grab bag of post-Soviet leftist obsessions aims to transform Chile into an identity paradise.

But first the new charter must be endorsed in a plebiscite scheduled for September of this year—and opinion polls show a majority of Chileans turning against it. This accords with a wider pattern. Hipster socialism is loudly self-righteous but rarely majoritarian—only under exceptional conditions, such as the social explosion in Chile or the Black Lives Matter protests and riots in the U.S., can it achieve political control.

The fate of the government is entangled with that of the constitution. Voters will judge the hipster socialist constitution based in large part on how they perceive the performance of hipster socialism in power. The legitimacy of the government’s agenda, in turn, depends on acceptance of the constitution. Should the latter be rejected in the plebiscite, “Boric will be a lame duck for three years,” one observer maintained. None of this should be reassuring to advocates of change.

Chile and the Futility of Transformation

The crisis of authority that raised up the street warriors as heroes during the riots of 2019 has quickly overtaken their representatives in office. A certain logic is at work. Boric and his crowd were originally chosen because they were nothing like Sebastián Piñera and the old political class: The public wanted different. Now the hipsters have become the new political class, and they find, to their surprise, that the public wants different yet again. A fair question, of course, is whether any political constellation, left or right, young or old, could ever meet the public’s Goldilocks standard of “just right.”

Still, achievement counts for something. The direction of change matters. Rioting teenagers wanted to blow up the society that had engendered and nurtured them. The social explosion, in its primeval form, resembled a suicide pact. Boric and his fellow leftists placed the revolt on a democratic path but failed to resolve, or even grasp, the contradiction between legacy socialism and the identity compulsions that defined his generation. They were also incapable of distinguishing between beau geste and real political change. Meanwhile, the new draft constitution is a massive agglomeration of identity and ecological dogmas without any attempt to embed these in a supportive structural or economic framework. It illustrates hipster socialism’s hollowness at the core: the love of words and disdain for hard political work.

The historical reality is that for 200 years revolutions knew exactly where they were headed—and then went bad. The French Revolution, archetype of them all, ended in the Thermidorian Reaction and a military dictatorship. Only a state of perpetual terror, such as the Marxist-Leninist regimes designed, could sustain the appearance of transformation—and, in these cases, the change was effectively the return to an industrialized version of the aristocratic principle.

Boric, a perceptive and moderate specimen of hipsterism, may well regain his footing with the public. The constitution may win in the upcoming plebiscite and become law. Chile, let me suggest, will remain largely untouched by these superficial developments.

Each society evolves at its own chosen pace. Democracy, in the end, is a transactional process that lacks the brute power to reshape standing institutions at one stroke. Revolt is unlikely ever to attain to revolution: It can destroy monuments and subway stations in a glorious spasm of nihilism but it has no mechanism for redesign or reconstruction. The answer to my question about whether Chile’s revolt can really transform society is that for a government of radical hipsters, inspired by psychological rather than structural or ideological factors, success will always be defined in purely theatrical terms.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter