What's your relationship to Chile?
I was born in Chile in 1973. My father was exiled from Brazil, where he was born, because he was part of the guerilla movement during the military dictatorship. The military’s rule lasted until 1985. When we arrived in Chile, the Allende government was in power. My parents were very young at the time, 22-23 years old, and they were there to help build a democratic socialist society. Then there was the coup against Allende, on September 11, 1973, and we had to go back to Brazil, albeit in an unofficial way.
So, when you went back to Chile this spring, it was partly personal, returning to your own history.
Yes, and I am very interested in the topic of historical repetition. For me, it was 50 years of history that came to a conclusion. Chile now is a country in movement, with a strong political imagination and many tensions. I never saw a city like Santiago, a city so marked by the type of political struggle they’ve experienced the last two years. You see graffiti everywhere.
These protests started in October 2019 and lasted well into 2021. They were very violent, bloody, and traumatic, with dozens dead and thousands injured. Despite all this, they were not very widely covered by Western media. Why was that?
It is indeed astonishing how absent Latin America is from the European radar. This continent almost doesn't exist. Conceptually speaking, the damage goes both ways: the political imagination of countries like Chile is absent from the European imaginary. The whole continent is in movement, with uprisings also in Columbia and in Ecuador. Latin American has 60 or 70 years of experience of leftist, populist policies. It could be very productive to be more attentive to what's happened there.
What is the current situation in Chile?
Chile was the first laboratory for neoliberal society – not only neoliberal economics. After the coup against Allende and under the dictatorship of Pinochet, the whole society was reconstructed on radical liberal principles, with a neoliberal constitution put in place in 1980. The state, in this constitution, had no right to run enterprise. Chile is the only country in the world where the water is completely privately owned. The revolt in Chile was against this limitation of the state, of society, and it was not just a local revolt. It was the collapse of a very strong model that was implemented across the whole world, based on the experiments conducted by Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek.
The psychoanalytical definition of melancholy is the longing for the lost object. If we want to change society, the first thing to do is to stop the melancholy.
What triggered the protests?
It was a mixture between a very strong economical discontent in the richest country of Latin America, and then the very clear expression of political violence as a consequence of the uprising in 2019 which initially was nonviolent. In the end, Chileans were able to create a new constitution. It is a country that is rebuilding itself, very much similar to the constitutional process in Iceland.
You make these connections and call it an “insurrection against Capital”, which could provide the “embryo of new social forms”. What do you mean by this?
For me, it is very clear that we are witnessing something like a “molecular revolution”: This is a concept created by the French philosopher Félix Guatarri, who saw two levels of change in society: the macrostructural level (institutions, the government, the state) and the microstructural level (the affective structures, the circulation of bodies, the simulation of desires). You can change the microstructural level but stay the same. And vice versa. A real revolution of real transformation is a change on both levels.
We see a global uprising against the neoliberal order. What do these revolts need to be successful?
I think it is true; the neoliberal model cannot make us dream anymore. The only thing that neoliberals can do is to produce fear. They have created a social and economic system to manage this fear. For a long time now, the left has refused to debate what change on a macro level would mean. Change should happen on a micro level, with questions concerning sexuality, desires, bodies. I recognize the importance of these changes, but we should have answers for macrostructural changes as well.
In Chile, this seems to be happening. It is a fascinating trajectory, from popular uprising to constitutional change. You call this process “insurrectional institutionalization”. What does that mean?
This idea goes back to the Arab spring. I was in Cairo once, in Tahrir square, and I was devastated because I saw so much energy without any process of incorporation. There was such a desire for change, and I knew that this would be lost – and we should accept this loss for a certain time. In Chile, the situation is different. It goes back in a lot of ways to what we call the Chilean third way in the 1970s, which was not a reformist approach to change. The Allende regime respected the framework of liberal democracy, but they nationalized the bank system, the financial system, and the most important parts of the economy, like the copper industry. One problem with the revolutionary processes in the 20th century was the militarization of society. Chile tried to avoid that by changing the institutions from within, without the military organization of popular violence.
You call this the “Chilean path to socialism” – marked by a clear Marxist approach in terms of political economy, and accompanied by the restraint on violence and an emphasis on culture.
The current constitutional project is in part influenced by this thinking – complete with the concern to think through what comes after the nation state. The answer, in Chile, is the Plurinational state, which means that there are people that precede the state and who have certain prerogatives and certain rights. It is a concept that makes sense for post-colonial societies. Because it reflects that there are different modes of production and different ideas about the relationship to space. The result could be the formation of a new common space or, more broadly, new arrangements for societies.
It also implies a massive change in the temporality of how you think about politics – with different layers of political reality and time.
Exactly. The nation state is born out of this mythical idea of origin – when Germany was created or when France was created. But actually, there are multiple temporalities and with these come totally different social temporalities that we should accept. A society should be able to live in multiple times.
I think this is a problem of our time: to start almost everything with a personal subject, to “I” in the sense of a witness. And I believe in de-personalization, in the strength of the unpersonal.
How is this understanding connected to the role and representation of indigenous people, especially in the Chilean context?
The constitutional parliament was an open space for all the 17 indigenous peoples in Chile. Each people had representatives in this process. These created tensions connected to the extractive activities in the country, for example the forestry industry, which in some regions makes up 3% of exports. But the overarching question is how to rebuild the relation to the resource, to the soul, to nature itself. This kind of thinking is very strong in Latin America in the last ten years or so. Some people are making fun of this. But it is not a sort of hippie imaginary. It is part of the very complicated process to rethink what it means to build a society that understands nature not just as property, not just as a space of extraction, but as a subject itself.
I found these beautiful phrases of yours: “It is necessary to release the past from its exile”, and it is necessary “to release bodies from melancholy”. Can you explain them?
This idea is very much connected to the colonial experience – the melancholic situation almost in a clinical perspective. The psychoanalytical definition of melancholy is the longing for the lost object. And it is a very strong and frightening idea because the loss becomes part of the self and puts a kind of shadow over the rest of the self. It is a sort of self-violence. This is the structure of the oppression in colonialism: we lost something; we lost our autochthony. We lost our land, and I will always be reminded about this defeat. This is an object of shame; my culture is a shameful culture. My skills are just an archive. If we want to change society, the first thing is to stop this melancholic process.
How can this happen?
Melancholy is connected to a constant sense of repetition, the repetition of loss, almost every day. The only way to change this is to produce another repetition, taking back the moment of defeat, but like in a theater play, from another perspective. Only then we can start another history.
Would you call yourself a classical Marxist?
Not classical, no, this is clear. I think that Marx is very important to understand some of the problems that concern us today. But I come from a mix between psychoanalysis and a certain dialectical tradition which you find in Hegel, Marx and the Frankfurt school. I think that something like Capital exists as a problem, as a way of life—not just as a mode of production, but also as a mode to produce societies. I also think that Critical Theory should not just be a critical understanding of capitalism, but a theory of structural and global changes through social emancipation. And Marx is someone who very well understood that.
Can you finish this sentence? For me, this is personal because –
I don't think that I can answer this question. I don't understand what a person is. I don't want to understand what a person is. I think this is a problem of our time: to start almost everything with a personal subject, to “I” in the sense of a witness. And I believe in de-personalization, in the strength of the unpersonal.
Questions by Georg Diez
Vladimir Safatle is Professor at the Department of Philosophy and the Department of Psychology at the University of São Paulo. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, he is part of the programs "The Foundations of Value and Values" and "The Future of Demoracy".