In Chile and in Britain
November 4, 2013 § 1 Comment
In Chile later this month presidential and congressional elections will take place, carrying with them hopes for deeper changes than the country has seen since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s long and deadly rule. Great hopes and savage memories. Chile is not yet free of Pinochet, whose grip persists in many aspects of the country’s governance and economy. The constitution he wrote after the coup of 11 September 1973 is still in force. It hampers electoral democracy and gives powers of veto over reforms to men who were prominent figures in the Pinochet dictatorship.
The Socialist Party candidate Michelle Bachelet served as president from 2006 to 2010 and looks likely to win again. This time she is at the head of a broad-left coalition that includes environmentalists, trade union activists, and leaders of the student movement that has been at the forefront of protest during the term of the present right-wing government. One hope is that victory by a large majority will make it possible to change the constitution.
After Pinochet’s brutal coup, Chile under military dictatorship was the testing ground for the free-market theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, ideas that six years later were to be adopted by Margaret Thatcher. Chile has had 40 years of privatisation. Public spending on education has shrunk while the private sector has grown. The student leaders who are now candidates for Congress are pursuing the aims that have brought many students onto the streets: higher standards of education that meet the needs of society, and not those of the market; free public education whose institutions should be financed directly from the state. An OECD report published in October of this year showed that Chile ranks first across the OECD and G20 member countries for private expenditure on tertiary education. Interestingly, the UK ranks second.
In Britain, the Tory agenda to privatise everything proceeds at the maximum speed, sometimes with fanfare: Royal Mail, and often by stealth: the NHS and higher education (for a detailed picture of what is happening to the latter, see Stefan Collini’s recent article in the London Review of Books). Has there been protest? There has, but it seldom makes big news, and is often neutralised by spurious offers of consultation. In Britain trade unions were weakened by the assaults of the Thatcher years while the short-lived payoffs of early privatisations and banking deregulation fostered the consumer identities the market would have us all adopt. Thirty-four years on, Thatcherism (and Blairism etc) has managed to stifle any active awareness of what has been lost in the wider sense: our right as a society to the things that should not exist for profit – healthcare, housing, education, to name the basics.
Or so it has seemed. The blaming of the ‘baby boomers’ – my generation – for having too much, for robbing the young of affordable homes and hope for the future, has been a handy Tory diversion that obscures the reality of how that impoverishment came about. We children of the post-war welfare state grew up in a world that was not designed for profit to be made out of everything in sight, a world that recognised the benefits of publicly financed education. It is the free-market economy and the banking catastrophe that have wrought the changes the young have every right to complain of now.
Maybe they are beginning to work out who the real culprits are. The current debate about energy costs is one sign; it has not only exposed the maintenance of a cartel to push prices ever higher for the sake of increasing already huge profits, it has also raised the question of the public good. There is an incipient public appetite for some form of de-privatisation. The same might apply to the running of our railway network, so publicly unloved for its unreliable, overcrowded trains and chaotic overpricing of tickets. We already have the example of East Coast Mainline, which was brought back into public control in 2009, after the disastrous failings of National Express as owners. It has proved more financially viable than any of the other rail companies, while making improvements valued by its passengers, yet the government has just launched a tender for its re-privatisation, for reasons that are ideological and nothing but. The Green MP Caroline Lucas has put forward a Private Members Bill that would renationalise the whole rail network. This is a perfectly feasible proposition. And the public, in other words the electorate, would welcome it.
The Greens, understanding that you can’t be green without challenging capitalism and its imperatives of growth, obsolescence and waste, have turned redder in the last few years. Have the Labour Party noticed? Surely they can see that this might be a good moment to be brave and decisive? To ditch Blairism and reclaim a place on the left? The Labour Party leadership needs to wake up from the free-market nightmare and give its support to the country. We have an election due in 18 months; there is still time to rally a genuine opposition.
Chile is a very different country from ours, but it can offer us lessons in courage and political aspiration. Pablo Larraín’s film No (a work of fiction) showed how tough and sometimes frightening it had been for the ‘No’ campaigners in the 1988 referendum on whether Pinochet should remain as head of government. They won with 55% of the vote. There are rumours that Larraín is giving a helping hand in next month’s election to 26-year-old Giorgio Jackson, a former student leader who has the coalition’s backing but is standing as an independent candidate for Central Santiago. Because he is unaffiliated to a political party he gets only 4 seconds of TV airtime. On his website he asks his supporters to send in pictures of themselves proclaiming that they’ll vote for him – on placards, banners, sheets of paper. Each photo gets its 4 seconds. Very simple. His slogan is ‘Now Is the Time’. He is tipped to win.