Political developments in Chile have burst open an extraordinary window for systemic reforms. The country’s furious 2019 rebellion, the concession of a constituent process by a defeated political class, and, most recently, the triumph of radicals in November’s elections all augur the emergence of a novel left project for the Global South. In his inaugural speech, President Gabriel Boric, head of the new Broad Front–Communist Party Apruebo Dignidad government, emphasized the centrality of non-market principles of equality and solidarity, the imminence of generous social provision, and the indispensability of mass movements, all while cautioning patience on the long road to change ahead of working and poor Chileans. Expecting the establishment of a new democracy that promotes egalitarian and sustainable post-neoliberal development is reasonable considering the country’s recent record of popular mobilization and the deep crisis of the party system in charge of post-authoritarian market orthodoxy. But the consolidation of an insurgent social democracy is far from guaranteed. Chile’s new radicals face daunting challenges in their campaign to install a more just social and political order. Democratic regime change from below is not merely inaugurated; it is forged through prolonged battles that not only defeat the parties of elites but reshape their interests and calculations for class reproduction.
This essay analyzes the key features that gave rise to the country’s new reform regime and evaluates its potential for sustaining itself over the resistance of elites. Compared to the two main types of reform regime in Latin America that have emerged since the 1990s — the pink tide and progressive neoliberalism — Chile’s new radicals enjoy significant advantages. On one hand, the new regime confronts a particularly weakened ruling class. Economic elites’ loss of strategic initiative, along with the disintegration of their partisan vehicles of representation, leave them susceptible to the imposition of alternative accumulation strategies by a revamped state. On the other hand, the social forces behind Apruebo Digndad’s rise formed in ways that should enhance the new government’s disciplinary power. Somewhat paradoxically, relatively uneven popular militancy amid steadily expanding industrial leverage opens an opportunity for the new left in power to avoid the commodity-clientelism trap while capitalizing on labor’s capacity to steer the state toward more advanced and egalitarian growth strategies.
Following a brief review of the major reform regimes in Latin America that preceded Chile’s new left, this essay describes two core dimensions shaping its rise: a disintegrating governing party system and surging popular mobilization. To underscore the distinctive promise of Chile’s new government, it compares these salient features of the emergence of the country’s radicals to the key conditions that promoted the installation of the region’s antecedent reform regimes. The essay next outlines the current crisis of Chilean business’s prevailing reproduction strategies to make the case that an exceptional path to insurgent social democratic regime change has opened in Chile. Considering the vulnerability of the country’s ruling class, it argues that reformers are in a position to impose new accumulation strategies onto elites by wielding bolstered state institutions from above and harnessing the growing power of labor from below.
Despite the advantageous circumstances, it remains too early to determine whether the country’s new radicals will fulfill the promise of the conjuncture. Yet although it is premature to declare triumphantly that “neoliberalism was born in Chile [and now] it will die there,” a non-clientelistic social democratic political force in the state, buttressed by a revitalized working-class movement, is poised to forge a novel twenty-first-century road to socialism.1