There is a widespread sense that the control measures being implemented for global quarantine are inevitable but also worrying. People are increasingly starting to take into account the possible impact of these restrictions on freedoms and rights in the immediate future. Although this debate is taking place everywhere, it is particularly dramatic in Chile, where lockdown measures have emptied streets and squares that had, until a moment before, still been occupied by the wave of social unrest that shook the country in October 2019. Although the protests had been triggered by a rise in public transport fares in Santiago, the main slogan, “Chile Woke Up!”, spoke of a country that had been numb, silenced, but with a latent disaffection and frustration due to the democratic limitations and servitude imposed on people’s everyday lives by Chile’s aggressive neoliberalism. This protracted neoliberalism was established in democracy but has its roots in Pinochet’s regime. The Chicago Boys (the anti-Keynesian school of hawks trained by the economist Milton Friedman) arrived in Chile with the 1973 coup d’état and turned the country into one of the world’s first laboratories of neoliberalism.
But Chile had actually been waking up for some time. The history of resistance against the dictatorship and against neoliberalism at the same time runs deep in Chile. And it has most recently echoed in the various student uprisings that swept through the country in the two decades since the turn of the century, particularly in the 2011 movement that transformed the party system inherited from the transition to democracy. When we realised that COVID-19 had become a global threat, Chile was going through a particularly difficult, but also hopeful time. In November, as a result of the protests, the National Congress signed an agreement that envisages the possibility of replacing the 1980 constitution imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. A national plebiscite called on 26 April this year was to be the start of a constituent process. Instead, Chileans have been in lockdown, the streets are empty, and the ballot boxes did not make it onto the streets. What will happen next is the subject of intense political and social dispute.
Nelly Richard (born in Caen, France, 1948; living in Chile since 1970) is one of Latin America’s most important cultural critics of the past fifty years. After studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, she worked alongside the legendary CADA (Colectivo de Acciones de Arte / Art Actions Collective), which acted against the Chilean dictatorship from 1979 onwards. She was part of the constellation of artistic practices against the dictatorship that she called “escena avanzada”, and her work has been decisive in the historiographic account of these practices. Nelly Richard co-organised the first International Conference on Latin American Women’s Literature in 1987, one of the most important acts of cultural resistance against the Pinochet regime. In 1990, the year the dictatorship formally ended, she founded the Revista de Crítical Cultural, an influential journal of critical thought that she edited until 2008. She has written dozens of books, many of them based on intellectual dialogue and collaboration, including The Insubordination of Signs. Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis (1994). More recent books include two compilations of her essays, Fracturas de la memoria: arte y pensamiento crítico (Fractures of Memory: Art and Critical Thinking, 2007) and Crítica de la memoria (1990-2010) (Critique of Memory, 2010), as well as her intellectual biography in the form of a long interview entitled Crítica y política (Criticism and Politics 2013). But this litany of her achievements fails to do justice to an intellectual practice that has resolutely stood by feminism, cultural critique, and the critique of history and memory as tools to do battle with, always in the eye of the hurricane of emancipatory aspirations. Our conversation took place on Monday 25 May 2020, when Nelly was at her home in Santiago, and I was in mine in Barcelona.
Nelly, the last time we met in person was in Santiago, in November 2019, just over a month after the outbreak of the citizen uprising. The streets were still teeming with an insurrectionary mass, particularly around the epicentre of the movement, Plaza Italia, popularly renamed “Plaza de la Dignidad” (Dignity Square). A parliamentary agreement had just been signed to convene a first plebiscite in April 2020 and the result, it was hoped, would mark the start of a constituent process. But instead now you are speaking to me from Santiago where the streets are empty, the people are at home in lockdown, the plebiscite has been postponed, and the balance of political and parliamentary power is changing. But before we go into details, how are you? You’ve spent lockdown at home, fortunately surrounded by your lovely half-wild garden. What is the mood there? And, broadly speaking, what has been the health situation in Chile in these last few months?
I'm fine... for now. It’s important to emphasise “for now” because everything is more provisional than ever. As you say, I’m speaking from Santiago, which has been in total lockdown for the past fortnight. The government of Sebastián Piñera, which is an arrogant, smug, defiant government, wanted to “innovate” relative to other countries by copying Sweden – as if our social situation was in any way comparable to theirs – so it ordered gradual, partial, mobile (“dynamic”, they said) lockdowns that did not isolate whole cities but only particular districts or even just parts of them. It appears that the strategy did not produce the desired results, so Santiago is now in total lockdown, and we don’t know how long it will last. In any case, between partial and total lockdowns, I haven’t left my home for two months. In terms of day-to-day life this doesn’t change my habits much because I write, read, and so on, except when it comes to travelling: right at this very moment I should be giving a seminar as part of the Politics and Aesthetics of Memory Chair that I coordinate at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, a trip that was obviously cancelled. In any case, I think that my own personal circumstances do not really matter if we think of the wretchedness of knowing that many, many people are suffering in miserable housing, with mass lay-offs, unemployment, hunger, etc., and that very bad times are coming, particularly for the most disadvantaged classes.
At the personal level, I feel like I’m on hold, as if I’m waiting for something, although I don’t know what it is. I was wondering, really. Perhaps I’m waiting to not be infected, for nobody close to me to be infected, to know when the lockdown will end, to see what will happen when the lockdown is lifted, or to find out what the world will be like after all of this. I don’t know. And don’t forget that the seasonal difference in the Southern Cone means that the images we see from Europe show us exactly what is coming. So I’m living through all this with relative calm, without drama but also without the excitement of suspense that has to do with a premonition of the new. In this sense, I cannot share the feeling described by Bifo, your first guest in this series of conversations, as the “joy of the unpredictable”. I think he may be right in that the crisis of the pandemic may open up the possibility of a future in which, as he says, capitalism will no longer be inevitable (Marcelo Expósito, “El capitalismo ya no es inevitable. Una conversación con Franco Bifo Berardi”, CTXT, 30/04/2020, English translation at L'Internationale). But I admit that those signs are too remote, vague, or ambiguous for me. So in my case, a tense calm, rather than enthusiasm, prevails.
When I suggested that we record this conversation, you offered to first send me some notes you had written during the last few weeks. And I received more than ten pages that took my breath away. You point out various important aspects that I will, of course, bring up to guide us now. We can begin by fantasising the scene of this conversation, drawing inspiration from Walter Benjamin (given our shared interest in him), who said that the task of the critical historian consists of arresting the flow of time. If the flow is stopped the right moment, the events come to a standstill in a constellation: a diagram of elements laid out on that frozen image. And the relationships between those frozen elements must be interpreted correctly. In your notes, you vividly describe the “intense, energetic, accelerated, almost frenetic time” created by the citizen uprising. When lockdown stopped this, it allowed you to read in minute detail the frozen image that is, for the moment, what remains of the vigorous time that came before. And you proceeded to interpret the revolt of October 2019 as an “archive”. What does that archive contain?I like your Benjaminian metaphor and your use of the term “arrested” in relation to the stoppage of temporal continuity, of the flow of time, although this arresting could not have been more unexpected and devastating. The various factories of the present could not have been brought to a standstill on a global scale in a more sudden and tremendous way. But this standstill has also disrupted the future imaginaries we are historically accustomed to creating. So yes, there is this abrupt stoppage and arresting, this freezing, and I imagine that you are right in that we should work at turning this sudden break into an analytical and reflective diagram. But I think this diagram cannot be extricated from the experientiality of bodies, from this suspension of life. We cannot fail to ask questions about the humanity or inhumanity of this life. As you rightly said, the revolt that began in Santiago on October 18 last year and very rapidly spread through the whole country, ended up uniting its many demands against the neoliberal hegemony: against the system of pensions, education, work, health, etc. in a call for a constituent assembly to permanently abolish the 1980 Constitution signed by Pinochet during the dictatorship. So the chant of the protesters in Dignity Square and all over the country was “Chile woke up”. Chile, had woken from the nightmare of a neoliberal stock of abuses, deceptions, frauds, confiscations, etc. That slogan was the start of a path through many obstacles that was to lead to a new Constitution. This means that the energetic time you refer to, in the months before the pandemic, really did feel like a time of new beginnings, of restructuring, of unfulfilled promises that call for what is to come. So I feel that perhaps the most palpable thing that has happened in Chile – unlike what occurred elsewhere, as you say – is this vital collapse of time, and of times in action. A collapse that abruptly took us from the mobilisation of collective desires of October 2019, to the forced immobilisation and individual confinement of March 2020. In other words, a dramatic shift from the anticipation of a future to be forged together on the one hand, to the resignation of being trapped alone in frozen time on the other. A shift from that hyperactive, desiring, wilful time, the time of political insubordination, to the time of lockdown, which is resigned and stationary. And it was also a shift from “Chile woke up” to a time of trying to survive, knowing that what Piñera ironically talks of as the “safe return” to normality is going to be a return to an even tougher and more dangerous reality than before.
That is indeed the paradox, and it is the vital clash between dissociated experiences of time. And you’re right, I use the word “archive” in relation to the revolt in the sense of a reservoir of recorded remnants, events, dreams, experiences, knowledge, passions, etc., that I think we should be able to hold in our memory. When I say “hold”, I mean that we should “hang on to” or “take care of” memory that should remain available (now that there is no way to channel the energy that drove that revolt towards a public expression) so that we can reinterpret it later. I say “reinterpret” because it implies a gesture more complex than simply recovering or using it. The archive is about material contained in a documentary source that preserves the traces of what has been recorded. It prevents the destruction of its power and of its latency. By latency I mean that which mediates between the traces of the past, and its future conversion into new forms that will transfigure its memory. This is why it is important to ensure that the repertory of practices and knowledge embodied during the revolt does not disappear, while also recognising that the re-emergence of forces will be different to the events of the uprising in October 2019 because it will necessarily contain the traces of this confusion in which we are immersed.
As you already know, I am particularly fond of one of your books, Critica y política (2013), in which you present your political and intellectual biography as a constellation of echoes between personal experiences and collective memories. Near the end of the book you even venture to size up the student protests that were taking place while you were writing the book in 2013. The student movement was the Chilean expression of the 2011-2013 global wave of protests against austerity and in support of the radicalisation of democracy. And in Crítica y política you talked about the two sides of these protests: destituent and constituent. This came to mind as I read your recent notes, and it made me think it is no accident that you are taking the time to read the frozen moment of the arrested citizen uprising of 2019 as an archive, and to question how it could be reactivated in both its destituent and constituent dimensions. As well as being very beautiful, I think this image is useful for two reasons. Firstly, it avoids the leftist tendency to think of uprisings in terms of “accumulation”, as the high point of a gradual build up. On the contrary, a revolt is more like an event in which many previous echoes reverberate, even when the people involved in it are not necessarily aware of them. Nor does it matter whether those who take part in an uprising have first-hand knowledge or historical memory of the revolts of the past, because in any case, an uprising is not a mere culmination. It is an updating of what has gone before, in the sense that it always involves repetition and variation of the past.
Secondly, your image of the revolt as an archive is very evocative because it allows us to look at the 2019 uprising differently. Through this lens, the problem is no longer how to continue the protests after this interruption, but how to reactivate the revolt, how to update it. In your opinion, what are changes are happening as a result of this crisis that could give rise to a reactivation of the protests? And what major obstacles are developing? Leaving aside the obvious uncertainty over when it will be possible to come together in mass demonstrations in public space again.
As you can imagine, I can’t answer your question with any certainty: it’s so difficult to know how the forces of this living archive will be reactivated. In any case, I think you have introduced a crucial distinction. We know that it’s problematic to think in terms of the continuity involved in a linear accumulation of forces leading to a guaranteed final result. We should be talking about repetition and difference, about reactivation by means of variation and reinvention. But it’s very complex, I don’t know. Certainly the harsh living conditions that are becoming commonplace in these pandemic times only serve to confirm the reasons that led to the October 2019 revolt against a regime based on economic and social inequality. A regime that increases precarity and segregates, but also, above all, abuses and offends. So now we’re seeing the breakdown of the public health system, the complete inadequacy of housing, the decay of urban peripheries, the totally immoral treatment of migrants, the social vulnerability... So the series of disasters that have become apparent with the pandemic reinforce the moral legitimacy of “Ya basta!” (Enough!), another of the slogans of October 2019: the call to end abuses and privileges that gave rise to the revolt against the capitalist plunder. But I don’t know whether this series of justifications that compel us to challenge both the neoliberal capitalist system and the governmental logic underpinning Sebastián Piñera’s right-wing alliance will be enough to ensure that this interval (which we sometimes call “quarantine” regardless of how long it lasts) does not diminish the force of the multitudes returning to the streets. As though the pandemic had simply been a setback. I don’t know. I mean, when I talk about returning to the streets I’m not just talking about the lifting of restrictions that will make it possible again, but about whether the energy, the desires, the willpower, will endure.
Of the first texts written about the pandemic, I must say that the one that spoke to me the most was Bifo’s “Chronicles of Psycho-deflation”, because it works with the complexities of the fabric of subjectivity and its vicissitudes, which others did not. Bifo talks about the collapse of the social order, including everything from the most primal fears of illness, death, etcetera that plague defenceless bodies, to the dejection of the spirit and its self-absorbed turning-within. So I fear that the traces this pandemic will leave on the spirit, on desire, on willpower, will not be quickly absorbed. Moreover, we have to guard against the new dangers that are emerging: the neo-fascist escalation, the totalitarian outbreaks from the far right. They tell vulnerable populations that they will set up repressive border controls between countries to protect them, and we have seen them pit us against each other, encouraging suspicion, mistrust, hostility between neighbours, informing, etc. I’m talking about the inhospitality of a world without protection, the fragility of frightened bodies, all of which tends to encourage a reactive, conservative response to adversity, we know it well, in sectors of the population whose quest for security may perhaps lead them away from the turbulent spectre of the social uprising in the form it took in October. So I do think that the spirit of the revolt has been affected by the pandemic. And to borrow the terms used by our dear friend Suely Rolnik, I think there will be an uncertain battle between the forces of disappropriation and reappropriation of life. And I am not at all clear on how and when a push for renewal and a transformative future will make itself felt.
I’m going to juxtapose two images of President Piñera and try to link them to your notes, to see what you think. On 12 April, Piñera declared that “total lockdown in Chile is not sustainable.” A month later, on 15 May, he staged a high-level official act to receive a shipment of respirators from the Netherlands and China at the airport. At a press conference on the runway, he stated the exact opposite of what he had said in April: “lockdown was necessary and happened at the right time,” and of course he called for discipline and compliance with the restrictions. Let’s not go into the ease with which spectacle-politics can now say one thing and its complete opposite with the same conviction immediately afterwards. I’ll ask you a question instead. In that one-month interval, Piñera – like many other international leaders – resisted applying restrictive measures, obviously to avoid harming the economy. Nonetheless, the streets of Santiago emptied. Does this mean that during this period of uncertainty over the lockdown measures, the streets were not only cleared by the imposed restrictions, that it was also a decision of the social movement? In other words, did the movement take it upon itself to demobilise in April, in an act of collective responsibility? If so, the people’s retreat into domestic spaces in Chile could have a mixed meaning. The movement has, of course, responded to the inevitable disciplinary measures imposed due to the global lockdown. But it may also have exercised a strange disobedience, self-managing the self-care measures that the president was reluctant to apply, concerned as he was over macroeconomic variables more than people’s health.
As for the second image-scene I want to raise here, in your notes you give a very interesting reading of how the government has implemented a sanitation policy based on several interconnected components. The president, you say, has adopted health and cleaning measures that also revive the vocabulary of neoliberal efficacy, which the protests had discredited. In the end, Piñera linked the whole thing to cleaning the signs of the uprising (in November 2019 I was able to see how one of the most spectacular practices of the grassroots movement was to fill the walls of downtown Santiago with graffiti that became a kind of counter-signage of the neoliberal city), thus regaining administrative control of public space.
I think those two images of Sebastián Piñera are very well chosen, and we could add a third: when the president, in a completely deserted city controlled by the forces of law and order, could think of nothing better than to have his photograph taken in Plaza de la Dignidad (Dignity Square, formerly Plaza de Italia, as he still calls it, of course), in a dominant pose that suggests he is back in control. That defiant pose is pathetic because his arrogant authority is displayed in a deserted square in an empty city, as if he were using a fake backdrop to pretend that he is wielding power again. The pandemic has in fact offered the government an opportunity and a pretext to buy time – time that it had lost when the social revolt pushed it into an abyss of delegitimisation. And so, with that centralised health management, trying to display actual “executiveness” (one of his favourite words), Piñera tried to recover a leading role by declaring war on the enemy virus on behalf of a population that needed defending. As you also said, the pandemic gave him an excuse to decree a state of emergency, a curfew that has been in place since 18 March 2020. So on the one hand there is the use of police control to “clean” the streets, removing any reminder of the popular uprising and gradually reintroducing signs of normalisation: replacing traffic lights that had been removed or broken, painting over graffiti on walls and buildings, repairing metro stations that had been destroyed or burned, etc. But the government did not just use the pandemic as a health and sanitation measure to metaphorically disinfect the city by getting rid of the dirty, turbulent, contaminating memory of the signs of social unrest. It also decreed the state of emergency that put the armed forces on the streets: the same soldiers and police officers whose uniforms bear the mark of the sinister memory of military persecution during the dictatorship, and who were again involved in abuses deemed to be human rights violations by international bodies, when they used violent repression against the demonstrators in the 2019 protests.
So, based on an analysis of the composition of signs, it comes as a shocking paradox to see the forces of repression supervising compliance with health measures: checking the permits that authorise people to move through the city, and helping also in the logistical aspects of everyday tasks such as delivering food hampers to people this week... And it seems to me that this creates a kind of fissure, a disturbing crack in the imaginary of the revolt that had expanded massively since October 2019. In other words, the shift from no-control in the uprising to control in the pandemic has been extremely abrupt, and the game change has occurred in the urban landscape, in the city, in the signs and even the corporealities.
Because we went from the emblem of the hooded guerrilla – and the heroic discourse of “front line” hand-to-hand combat with the police – to the protective safety of face masks; from the black clothing of the anarchistic turbulence to the health-care white of medical aprons... What I’m saying is that a certain visual landscape and also a certain repertoire of discourses has been completely disrupted. And I don’t really know what symbolic form the bewilderment and frustration will take.
You suggest that part of the population may have used the lockdown tactically, channelling it towards other ends. I don’t know if we can say that the population “decided” to do this, because deciding implies being in control of a desire that remains intact, and I’m not sure this is the case. But there are indeed new signs that have violently disrupted the city in which Piñera wants to impose order by force. And this is interesting because, as we know, memory never lets go, it goes around and around. Although we were appalled to see the memory of the dictatorship infiltrating the military control of the city under the pretext of the pandemic, last week protests and barricades started to reappear in the poor areas as a result of hunger. And this brought back another heroic memory of resistance, because communal meals and soup kitchens are being set up, and they are redolent with memory. They conjure up memories of the worst times of the economic crisis under the dictatorship, a time when women – this must be stressed: women – came up with communal ways of surviving the economic crisis in the shanty towns. We could interpret these as the kinds of self-organisation that you refer to, exercised through strategies and mechanisms that combine efforts in the midst of adversity. One of the slogans of these soup kitchens is “the people take care of the people”, a declaration of self-care as the anti-neoliberal flip side. But I get the sense, although I am not at all certain, that these forms of resistance speak a different language, at least for now, to those of the October protests. The protests taking place now are basically driven by need, while the ones in October were struggles of desire, to use Guattari’s expression. They were struggles guided by a utopian imaginary of the expansion of possibility, beyond the immediate satisfaction of basic needs, which has now become pressing. So I don’t know how connections will be established to allow the desire for possible futures to come back in the midst of hardship: such as for example the desire for the Constituent Assembly as a new citizen matrix.
Your notes include some harsh criticism of the way certain intellectuals – whose names have become global brands – have rushed to interpret this crisis. In the conversations I’ve been having recently, I’ve talked about the fact that there are two approaches to critical thinking that I find particularly inappropriate in this crisis. Firstly, that of philosophers who are convinced that the end of the world has come to corroborate their pet thesis. Secondly, that of the prognosticators who have made a grab for the immediate future, trying to be the first to guess what will happen next. In contrast to this, in your notes you summarise the key ideas raised in recent weeks by Alejandra Castillo, Rita Segato, Judith Butler, Suely Rolnik, Verónica Gago, and Luci Cavallero. But you don’t do it by compiling authoritative quotes. Instead, you strike up a kind of virtual dialogue among feminist women, obviously counting yourself among their ranks. By creating this virtual assembly, you show how feminism is a legacy that is crucial for us right now for at least two reasons. The first, to draw other conclusions about what is taking place, beyond the clichés at the heart of competitive analysis. And the second, to think about what is happening to us in a different way: from a situated perspective, using other tools, in accordance with other epistemologies, and even materialising the discourse in non-authoritarian forms.
You’ve explained it so well that I don’t know what to add... It’s true that I turned away from the first pronouncements by the global intellectuals, as you call them. And the first thing that struck me as almost unbelievable is the fact even though feminism’s contributions to critical theory, to social theory, have been so decisive, so forceful... I mean, it seemed unimaginable to me to see Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Žižek, Byung Chul Han, Alain Badiou formulate their epochal analyses and forecasts without incorporating feminism as a point of view on the how and why of capitalist decline. I would say I find it really extraordinary, shocking. As you say near the end of your question, feminist thought has created, through female precarity, an imaginary of the domestic bodies of the women whose work is undervalued by capitalism and who tirelessly sustain the pandemic lockdown. This is what Verónica Gago and Luci Cavallero intelligently explain when the say that female precarity reveals “the limits of capitalism; that without which social life cannot continue” ("Crack Up! Feminismo, pandemia y después", El Salto and Revista Anfibia, 9/4/2020). It is as simple as that. Then again, there is no way out of capitalism without restructuring work in a way that takes into account everything that feminism has theorised about the public-private divide, about production and reproduction, the issue of care, and so on. It seems to me that the contributions of contemporary feminism have been so... and I’m not just referring to the power of feminism as a social movement, but also to the rigour and vigour of feminist theory. I mean, there is a feminist account of the hidden dark side of capitalism that is now out in the open and cannot be ignored. The other thing that caught my attention is the fact that these philosophers did not appear to respond to what we are experiencing as a collapse of certainties and guarantees caused by the pandemic in terms of the general frameworks for interpreting society. This collapse of certainties and guarantees did not disrupt the foundations or categories used by these illustrious philosophers. It appears there is nothing that will require them to doubt their own knowledge apparatus. They do not for a moment renounce their status as the owners of knowledge, continuing their masculine trust in grandiose scales of universal superiority. In other words, they speak from the same old possession of knowledge, from the same old hierarchies of authority, without acknowledging any loss or failure of control.
And so I contrast their words with those of women writers, essayist, and feminist critics who, working around the term “precarity” in all its semantic and conceptual polyvalence, have been able to articulate voices that register the texture of a world that is precarious, fragile and tenuous, fragmented, residual, etc. They also formulate the doubts and uncertainties of fragmented subjectivities as small narratives that acknowledge the collapse of the categorical universal, which the voice of the great philosophers seems unable to do. It is true that my opinion of these philosophers is based on reading preferences prior to what they are saying now. I must admit that unlike many of my colleagues here, I have never been an enthralled reader of Žižek or of Badiou. Nor am I a devotee of Agamben, although I recognise the power and beauty of his conceptual architecture. I have always found him to be an overly ecstatic thinker, who creates sublime categories but does so from a rather contemplative subject, lost in transcendence, without the theoretical-critical dimension that I do deduce, for example, from Judith Butler’s concept of “precarious life”. Butler gives an exact and also exquisite account of the lives that matter and the lives that don’t. The lives that are worthy of being mourned and the ones that aren’t, the surplus, disposable, throwaway lives. She thus established a concept of vulnerability that anticipates our experience now. And because she uses gender technology to decipher and challenge the capitalist machine, Butler makes it possible for me to identify the technical details of the inner workings of this machine. In contrast to the sublime transcendence of Agamben’s “bare life” that unfolds as a contemplative philosophy, I think Butler always takes into account what Edward Said called “the heterogeneity of civil society”. In this sense, she is a thinker who always offers emancipatory solutions, using a strategic-contingency approach to change the relationships between power, institutions, and subjectivities that require us to have the capacity to act.
As I listen to you, it occurs to me that we can synthesise these intellectual positions that are not proving useful to us at present, in two images. In the first, the intellectual is like Piñera pathetically staging his power in the middle of an empty city: it is just as ridiculous to perch on the ruins of the present to declare your truth. It is an exercise in discursive authoritarianism without empathy when we are feeling hurt. The second image is that of the intellectual who takes pleasure in catastrophe, throwing a burden on our heads when in fact our subjectivities need to be empowered. You make me think about the usefulness instead of the kind of thinking that highlights the precariousness of structures of authority and, inversely, draws strength from our fragility. In any case, to conclude this conversation, I would like to ask you to reflect on the political problem that you mention at the end of your notes, which I think is vital in the current situation. As you said earlier, no matter when and how the grassroots uprising is reactivated, it will be in worse material and existential conditions than when it first broke out in late 2019, due to the triple impact of the health, economic, and existential crisis. You say that any new destituent action would have no choice but to try to work with the constituent process that will also reopen. But this task of establishing connections, mediations, representations, translations between different emancipatory impulses is by no means simple. It is not simple in the more obvious sense of political coordination between movements and organisations, between civil society and those who want to radically change the institutions from within. And it is even more difficult because these connections do not only have to be political or organisational, they also have to take place on the mental and emotional levels.
This problem that you identify is a huge challenge that I can see, and this puts me at odds with most of my philosopher colleagues and friends in Chile. The 2019 protests were interpreted through the exaltation of the street as the site of self-organised protest, without known leaders at the helm, and with an evident distrust of institutional politics. A distrust of political parties including the parliamentary left, and also of party alliances, which were all deemed impure and treacherous. This gave rise to the readings based on the destituent fervour of the street and the ungovernability of the people: the street was hailed as the irreducible guarantee of rebellious spontaneity, of being against, of not falling into the hands of any political apparatus. In other words, there was an imagery overflow in which the people were the redemptive source of a new epic... It would take hours and hours to talk about the dangers of a certain tendency to endow the people with absolute positivity because they are deemed to be the custodians of a pre-revolutionary truth: the truth of Plaza de la Dignidad, which is just waiting to come into being almost without mediation or political coordination. As if the rage and indignation of being against the status quo were enough in themselves to transform it or to change the constituted powers. We know that “the people” are not an entity equipped with that unity and integrity. They are the result of an assemblage of heterogeneous parts, of diverse subjectivities, whose paths of identity converge or diverge according to the positions that the individuals occupy in a given situation.
I don’t know how the people’s territorial composition or intersubjective pattern will shift under the upheaval generated by the pandemic. But I do think that the conditions of extreme social vulnerability of a population besieged by hunger and poverty urgently require the implementation of public policies by the state. So my question is whether it is wise to continue to defend the non-negotiable street as a kind of pure externality destined to take revenge on political institutionality and to uncompromisingly break any system of governability. I don’t know, I don’t think so. The reduction of the social safety net, mass unemployment, the collapse of the public health system, personal debt as a result of loans for university education, etc., will all force politics, the left, to rethink the role and the functions of the state. In other words, everything that a certain intransitive reading of the revolt from the street refuses to consider.
And here comes the complicated part, to finish with: in Chile, the supposed end of the pandemic is due to coincide with the resumption of the debates on the Constituent Assembly and will also mark the beginning of an electoral process to appoint mayors and governors. What I’m saying is that the end of the pandemic will be complicated by a process in which the right will want to recover political power in order to find a way to influence the “reject” option in the upcoming national plebiscite on the constituent process. So whether we like it or not, we will be on the level of institutional politics and its hegemonic disputes. I think that by refusing to occupy that ground in the name of the insurrectionist street we block the left from taking an active role in the debate on the meaning of democracy. In view of these risks, there may be a very high cost to pay if the left remains entrenched in the dichotomy between the inside as state power, and the outside as social autonomy. Instead, it could strengthen planes of coexistence between organisations and political parties, between civil society and the institutions, etc. Everything that diversifies the map of alliances capable of impeding the right’s mission to regain control. Perhaps the pandemic is showing us that now is not the time to succumb to or rejoice in the negativity of destituent forces to revoke any kind of order. Instead, it is an opportunity to attempt to create instituent dynamics that can mediate and translate between the forces of disorder that incite the protests on the one hand, and certain constructive grammars of the power to act through politics and also through language on the other.
This conversation is part of The Pandemic in Germinal. Conversations on a Quarantined World series produced by Marcelo Expósito for El Aleph. Art and Science Festival and UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), with the collaboration of àngels barcelona gallery, La Maleta de Portbou. Revista de Humanidades y Economía, Revista CTXT, Nodal (Noticias de América Latina y el Caribe) and L’Internationale.