Act: Inspiration

In Chile, We Have the Opportunity to Build an Economy to Overcome Fear

July 12, 2022

Following the election of a progressive government in Chile earlier this year, the country has been debating a new constitution written under revolutionary conditions: by a convention with gender equality, representation of Indigenous peoples, and with many members from environmental justice movements. As the draft is finalized ahead of a referendum in September, social media across the country has been awash with ‘explainer’ posts and videos in favor of the new texts — and debunking misinformation telling people that their pensions will be expropriated, for example. Most of the pro-constitution posts boil down to a single line: no one is going to take your home away from you.

The presence of such worries among the population can tell us a lot about political and economic change: When the time comes to transform revolutionary aspirations into legal infrastructure, we are touched at our core fears: what do we, the people of Chile, have to lose in this process of transformation? Paying sincere attention to these discourses of fear is crucial, I believe, to understand the deeper societal challenge of building a new economy that does not destroy the planet.

The neoliberal economy that has become the hallmark of Chile is an economy of fear: An economy of scarcity and competition, in which securing one’s property — emblematically, one’s home — is seen as the bedrock of stability and the possibility of a prosperous life. The people fearing the loss of their homes or pension funds are not greedy, immoral capitalists. They are, substantially, the exploited majorities who have been promised a piece of prosperity in exchange for a life sacrificed to work. Fear of losing that prosperity, or even the hope of prosperity, is often what stands in the way of bold, revolutionary reforms like those needed by Chile to overcome neoliberalism.

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We belong to the land

It does not have to be this way. While the idea of a society of proprietors has insidiously become common sense in Chile, there are openings to move to a new economy in which the public provision of shared abundance does not mean the threat to anyone’s sense of ‘hard work’ and deservingness. Transforming property is at the heart of the matter — after all, how can we think of establishing much-needed limits to our material and energy extraction without questioning the entitlement the idea of being an ‘owner’ implies? Different diagnoses have pointed out this need, denouncing that, otherwise, Property Will Cost Us the Earth.

The example of the house has been more poignant recently, but similar issues have been raised for instance about the end of property rights over water. Up to now, Chile is the only country that has created a system in which water is effectively owned. This has created an ecological debacle, but also a productive system that relies on that ownership to support all sorts of agribusiness. The point of guaranteeing water as property was to make investment ‘safe’, even if it meant destroying or permanently damaging full ecosystems and ways of life. The desolate landscapes of drought in areas invaded by export-oriented intensive agriculture (like avocados) are a testimony to the irrationality of the current system.

Environmental organizations and movements from across the country came together to disarm this and other destructive elements of Chile’s current economic regime. Now, the political institutions in charge of giving life to the new constitution will have to find a way to build a new world in which livelihoods stop depending on extractive and noxious activities, hidden under the inviolability of property. It will be the only way our neoliberal subjectivities will be transformed in a caring — and not traumatic — way.

Transforming property will mean radically rethinking our relationship with each other and towards the land. Both dimensions go together. Acknowledging that we belong to the land — and not the other way around — also means understanding that we are fragile beings that depend on each others’ care. What would ‘owning’ mean in a truly ecological and democratic society? Most likely, something closer to the responsibility to care about the places we inhabit than today’s model of unrestricted exploitation.

Alternatives are hiding in plain sight

The newly elected government has called on the people of Chile to “make history” and participate in the defining referendum. The campaign could not reflect better the challenges that will hopefully open once the constitution is approved. A new economy that overcomes fear and can think of new ways of supporting each other in a fair way remains a horizon to be imagined and fully embraced. Making history is precisely about this: about acting in ways and creating things that could not possibly have been predicted.

Still, there are already plenty of experiences, policies, and proposals. To a large extent, there is a lot to learn from the Indigenous peoples and other communities that have managed to sustain their commons to create flourishing lives without the tools of neoliberalism. Ideas like usufruct and public ownership need to become politically mature and convincing enough to sparkle hope. Fortunately, across Chile and Latin America, there is a growing thirst for new understandings and approaches to the economy, from the Programa Introducción a las Nuevas Economías, our own online course on degrowth, and the exploration of public ownership in The Future is Public (taking place in Chile later this year). This and other spaces of conversation and political organizing are challenging the core assumptions of property and aiming at its transformation.

In the end, the fear manifested by many when trying to understand what has been written in the new constitution goes back to the scepticism that another world, another society is possible. We are now finally facing, collectively, the fact that this ‘economy’ we want to change is not an outside phenomenon restricted to what happens in stock markets. It is our lives, our stories, and our efforts to take care of the people we love. Our sense of worth. Going deep down to undo the foundations of capitalism will require a leap of revolutionary hope in our own capacity to live together differently.

Teaser photo credit: Poster by the Apruebo (“Approval”) movement, encouraging people to vote in favor of the new constitution.

Gabriela Cabaña

Anthropologist studying energy transitions in the context of social-ecological breakdown. Part of

Tags: Chile, Chilean Constitution