Two hundred ownerless dogs are marching along the Alameda, Santiago’s main thoroughfare. They have been ejected from their natural territory by a demonstration 150,000 strong. Students, teachers, administrative staff, and idlers dressed up as pirates, knights of the round table, gravediggers, the undead—a lot of zombies everywhere. And in the vanguard, heading the demonstration, is this horde of stray dogs, a leaderless pack weaving along like confused eels, the mangy, sick or just plain unwanted dogs that are the first thing any tourist notices about Santiago—a capital that is otherwise clean and tidy, proudly modern, postmodern even, but that has never managed to remove, control, nor even count the multitude of ownerless dogs that inhabit its streets.
Dogs sleeping, barking, reproducing on the steps of public offices and buildings, on the sidewalks of the main avenues, outside the headquarters of the department stores. A world of dogs that is usually peaceful and goes all but unnoticed by the capital’s human inhabitants, now displaced for the first time in centuries from this territory that is also theirs, the center of this easygoing city that, like this interminable year, has suddenly become feverish, unpredictable, tempestuous.
The homeless dogs running off in search of new territory are the perfect symbol for the whole country. Who has not felt lost, uprooted, in this year of protests, marches, debates, barking aimlessly at other dogs of whose existence we have only just become aware?
Thousands of students will lose a semester or even a year of their studies because the public universities—which in Chile are public in name only, with 70 percent of their financing coming directly from students’ parents—are no longer receiving their tuition payments. Proportionally, education in Chile is the most expensive in the world. The median cost of attending a public university is 1,746,784 pesos, or $3,400 in US dollars, in a country where the average monthly middle-class income is 752,000 pesos, or $1,541. What’s worse, public expenditure for higher education is barely 0.5 percent of GDP, the lowest in the world.
The protests that continue to roil the country started, as protests always do, with an attempt to remedy a small injustice: asking for a “scholar pass” that would give students free access to public transportation. By 2006, however, backed by marches of hundreds of thousands of students, demands had quickly escalated to asking for a full-scale state takeover of the educational system. The system had been largely privatized by the promulgation of the Organic Constitutional Law of Teaching (LOCE), which was implemented in 1990, a parting gift left from Pinochet on the last day of his regime. By divesting the state of all but a regulatory function over Chilean schools (secondary and higher education included), the LOCE essentially eased the ability of private corporations to take over school funding and administration. (Today only 45 percent of Chilean students study in fully public institutions.) These demands tested the administration of former Prime Minister Michelle Bachelet, eventually forcing her to replace her minister of education and negotiate face-to-face with the student protest leaders, who by then had gained widespread support throughout the country.
Nevertheless, a commission of student leaders and eighty experts, coached by business leaders, watered down the original demands. At the end of the process, LOCE was replaced by a new law that not only failed to take into account what the students wanted but also deepened the privatization of education through a skewed subsidy system. A new wave of protests began to coalesce, led by the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations (CONFECH), a tightly organized and disciplined university student organization. Its demands, clear and forthright, were drawn up in the “Acuerdo Social por la Educación Chilena,” which, among other things, called for increased state funding for schools and laws easing student participation in university governance.
But beyond the specific goals of the protest, what the student movement did was resurrect traditions of protest, debate, and vision that the country had long ceased to observe. With the earthquake, the few certainties that had comforted us in nights of doubt simply collapsed. A country older than the democratic transition and the dictatorship, the country of the Unidad Popular, the country of Neruda and Violeta Parra, reemerged on the ravaged surface from the depths of its geography. Tranquility, maturity, passivity—these were no longer the mood. Over the six long months of school sit-ins, marches, unavailing efforts at dialogue, barricades, and gunshots, everything shifted and is still shifting, an unending moral earthquake in a country that seemed to have turned away from great moral questionings, the pain of the dictatorship, the urgency of reconciliation. Amid the ruins of the earthquake we found the ghost of our expired rebellious selves, the forgotten urge to go out into the street and shout No.
Che Guevara badges, red flags, the Andean songs of Quilapayún and Inti Illimani, legendary protest singers we thought were lost in the dustiest recesses of memory. Amidst the marches, I cannot help confronting my own ghosts, my memories: protests against the dictatorship in the mid- and late ’80s, a kind of desperate left-wingery I was happy to abandon in the ’90 to embrace the market, women with well-applied lipstick, money, and television. My youth at the tail end of the dictatorship, the central committee, the party discipline, the empty cardboard coffin symbolizing public education being carried to the gates of the girls’ school run by nuns next to my own, which was mixed and much poorer. And the chauffeur of one of the girls, drawing a pistol. And Pirri, later a sailor, who risked his five feet of skinny, pale flesh by shouting at him: “Go on then, you jerk, shoot.” And the driver firing straight into the air, and the protesters racing away, out of breath and legs shaking, like pigeons in the park scattered by a kick.
Today’s protesters chant the same slogans and sing the same songs as when we were young. But do the youth of today know what fear is? Do they know its opposite, which is nameless, because its name is not courage but perhaps just sheer nerve, or the sheer speed of talking and thinking and saying no and running, and then running some more so their enemies can never catch them? Well fed, adored by their parents, downloading song after song on their computers, ceaselessly texting: do these kids know what the enemy is, an enemy that has no name, no face, not even hatred? Do they know what it is to have an enemy?
I am in the middle of a student march with a friend who was an activist with me in the 1980s. I ask him what he is doing for a living.
“Ontological coaching,” he tells me. “I advise people on how to change their lives. Most people change what they ‘do’ but not what they ‘are.’ The key is in being, not doing,” he goes on. This mixture of marketing terminology and spiritual goals is perhaps the hallmark of my generation, which grew up under the dictatorship but then at 20 gained access not just to democracy, but also to the market, travel, businesses of our own, and to unceasing, bewildering communication for which nothing ever prepared us.
We did not choose to live this way. The dictatorship privatized the state-owned companies, the public universities stopped being free, the private universities grew rich. This change was not without trauma. The country went through one of the worst economic crises in its history in 1982, but Pinochet’s strongman rule did not change course and the country came through to an enviable and envied prosperity. Companies did not become publicly owned again, though, nor did universities become free. Out of necessity, demands for a restored and expanded welfare state were forgotten. We children of the abortive socialist revolution adapted perfectly to the ongoing neoliberal one.
My generation, those born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, learned to live with fear. Our childhoods were never free for a moment from the the military regime, nor were they free from scrutiny by opposition activists, who permitted neither frivolity nor criticism, fun nor clarity of thought. Everything was too solemn. Neutralized twice over, we learned to distrust collective and epic aspirations. Educated in fear, in a country that taught us it was every man for himself, we found the very word equality unpardonably vague. Those of my generation live happily in the present.
We thought the only possible rebellions were personal, that the most private part of private life—sex, nostalgia, memories—was the vein we had to follow. We thought we had signed an armistice with reality. Then, mysteriously, it all started over. In front of the Moneda, the presidential palace, a thousand students dance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, dressed as zombies because they “we will die paying” the debts of millions of pesos that await them at the end of their studies. In Santiago, a group of art students go round and round the Moneda. They plan to keep this up for 1,800 hours, symbolic of the $1,800 million they think need to be injected into higher education. The street is taken over by Lady Gaga imitators, open-air nudity, and three thousand passionate kisses in front of the cathedral.
I cross through quickly, as though I were afraid of this vast crowd and its contradictory demands: gay marriage, no dams in Patagonia, cycling and animal rights. Few or no traditional party flags, few or no traditional party leaders, because they were jeered at mercilessly whenever they tried to join a column of demonstrators.
These young people remind me of my own youth, then, but also of what was lacking in it. Cuba in ruins, Che Guevara a movie—they are playing at changing the world because they believe it cannot change. They have no other project, they are upholding no other power. They have enemies but no allies. Their petition is for a return to a social democratic approach (that of the New Deal in the United States) to education. The faith of their forefathers, the memory of their world transmitted by Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. The greatest novelty of this movement is that it does not for a moment aspire to be new; hence the miraculous support they have garnered among their parents and grandparents.
It may be novel in the way it communicates (social networks), but not in its message, a rebelliousness that moves between nihilism and reformism. As though in a giant play, young people have once more donned all the costumes of the 20th century, its ideologies, its sensibilities, its hopes and despairs: Camila Vallejo, the beautiful communist; Giorgio Jackson, the likeable Christian leftist navigating a sea of Trotskyites and anarchists of every stripe and age; transvestites and transgenders en masse; bandanna-wearing youths with stones and Molotov cocktails, preparing for their own Intifada once the celebration that rounds off every march is over and the other party begins, the party of looting, broken glass, broken heads, tear gas canisters, and police horses that sometimes fall, bleeding heavily, to the ground.
These are the Chilean “indignants.” Like its Spanish equivalent, or like Occupy Wall Street, the student movement combines new technological platforms and sophisticated and creative forms of protest with a nostalgic wish list calling for a return to a social protection state. But the Spanish protesters and their American counterparts are the children of an economic crisis unparalleled in history. Their indignation is not ontological but simply logical: they will not be entitled to the same privileges and opportunities as their elders. The system screwed them and they feel entitled to screw the system. This is not the case with the Chilean students, part of a generation that was given large-scale access to higher education their parents could not aspire to, citizens of a country that is visibly growing and prospering, albeit in a visibly unequal way (it is the most unequal country in the OECD).
The student movement was not born out of rage nor hunger, hence its freshness and vitality, its strength. It is driven not by the personal demands of the perennially excluded but simply by a struggle to live in a normal country. The government called the students privileged when they started to take to the streets. But that is their merit. Camila and Giorgio were not the most disadvantaged in the system. They went to private schools and obtained places in highly selective universities where the richest study, but they rose up in defense of the rights of those who were not so lucky.
What is wrong with them? Why aren’t they content with what they have? Why don’t they let the disadvantaged, the forgotten, stand up for their own rights? In the eyes of my generation, the ontological coaching generation, these protests are completely incomprehensible. This generation has nothing to gain from their struggle and it is not clear what those who will follow them can gain, either. What has driven them to struggle, to fight, to sacrifice themselves in an unequal battle in which they personally stand to lose a great deal more than they can gain? Ethics? That much overlooked thing, simple morality? The desire to wield power and be seen on television? All of the above, but also something else that escaped and continues to escape the calculations of my generation.
In 1862, Ivan Turgenev published Fathers and Sons, the story of a son who goes to visit his father on a country estate in Russia. With him goes a friend who is obsessed with questioning everything. The novel gave wide currency to the term nihilist, what Bazarov, the friend who goes on to become the main character in the novel, calls himself. He is a wastrel who does not dare seize the great love that is within his grasp and absurdly allows himself to die of a curable disease.
Fathers and Sons could also be the name of a novel about the Chilean students. The problems of education and inequality that they attack have been a constant in Chile. If they are protesting now, it is perhaps because relations between parents and children have changed even more radically than economics or politics. The relations with each other are just the opposite of those in Turgenev’s novel, because here it is the parents who are the nihilists, the suicides, the silenced, the frustrated, and the children who are the reformers, the realists, the strategists.
These young people’s parents admire them. Perhaps because those parents were the last generation to be oppressed, they do not oppress their own children. Partly because they experienced real physical hunger, they are obsessed with seeing that their children lack for nothing, not even the pleasure of fighting for justice. Camila Vallejo’s father, Reinaldo, is a communist, and when the revolution was canceled he married Mariela, had children, and acquired a home and a small heating and boiler installation business. Giorgio’s mother worked for the Catholic Church, dealing with food rations for the homeless and the very poor. Born and raised in the struggle against the dictatorship, how could they fault their children for carrying on the ritual rebellion, the struggle for which ontological coaching was no substitute?
The communist youth, responsible for the security of all their leaders, are putting up cordons. The press officer for the FECH and the FEUC answers calls from France, Australia, and Britain on a cell phone so old and worn out it is all but falling to pieces. A compact mass shoves a group of twenty leaders who are hemmed in by a tide of photographers, camera operators, and reporters of all nationalities.
Two years before the protests began, a world congress of Darwinists was held in Chile. The novelist Ian McEwan was the main guest at an event that included biologists, economists, and psychologists, was widely covered by the world’s press, and attracted the interest of numerous business people and right-wing politicians. The fact that Darwin himself visited Chile is only part of the reason for the success and prestige of this event, in a part of the world where the business and political elite tend to view science and culture with unease, mistrust, or just indifference. A certain idea of natural selection—one that would not have been shared, incidentally, by neither Darwin nor his followers—was one of the underpinnings of the Chilean neoliberal revolution. Indeed, several of those who promoted it were among the organizers of the event. The idea of the survival of the fittest explains why life expectancy is ten years less in some communes of Santiago than in others and why raffles and parties have to be held to raise money for friends’ hospital expenses. The same Darwinism explains why the poorest Chilean students have no choice but to borrow from private banks to obtain a professional qualification.
Some of these business people and politicians looked and still look to Darwinism for a biological explanation of inequality. Certainly, there is nothing more unequal than nature, nothing less fair. Yet when I see the dogs desperately looking for a pack to join, to mingle with, to disappear into, I cannot help seeing a Darwinian explanation for the protests setting Chile and the world alight. These dogs need a familiar pack to conquer unknown territories, to inhabit those they know. They bite and bark at one another because it brings them closer. They are capable of surviving alone but would prefer not to.
My generation, educated in Hobbes to purge any recollection of Rousseau’s naiveté, always saw the pack as oppression, danger, prison. When every dog has its territory, its food, and its home, this is true. When it is forced to travel, the pack ceases to be a prison and becomes freedom. This is what was forgotten by my generation, which has had to forget so much: the simple idea that equality can be as natural to pack animals like people and dogs as freedom. It is a hunger for equality, as voracious and as undeniable as the hunger for freedom that I witnessed and participated in, that is filling the streets of Santiago, New York, and Damascus, with citizens in their hundreds desperately searching for a pack to tell them who they are.
—Translated by Nile Davidson
(with thanks to Luke Epplin)