Fragments of a Chile in Revolt
Rodrigo Karmy Bolton
Below are two excerpts from Rodrigo Karmy Bolton’s The Future is Inherited, a compilation of essays and reflections composed during the initial months of the 2019 Chilean uprising, which recently appeared in English.
In October 2019, Transantiago, the Metropolitan Transit system in Chile’s capital, raised the train fare by thirty pesos. In response, high school students planned what they called a Evasión Masiva, a week of coordinated protests across the city where participants and commuters alike jumped metro turnstiles and refused to pay the fare. On Friday, October 18, a “mass evasion” shut down Santiago’s metropolitan transit system during rush hour. Crowds began gathering across the city, and by nightfall, barricades guarded by singing revelers burned at every major intersection. Banks and government buildings were set ablaze, while supermarkets, WalMarts, and one sixth of all corporate owned pharmacies were looted. The country’s President at the time, Sebastián Piñera, held a press conference in which he declared a “state of emergency” in the city. Twenty-four hours later, tanks and Humvees patrolled Santiago, military curfews were enforced, and civil liberties were suspended for the first time since the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990).
This inaugural wave of unrest was quickly countered by a series of political maneuvers that sought to channel the energy in the streets into institutional changes. By November 2019, the ruling conservative party and its opposition agreed to initiating a process that would lead to the drafting of a new constitution.
Two years have since passed. The constitutional convention has begun to draft a new constitution, and Gabriel Boric, a leader from the 2011 university student movement turned congressional representative, now serves as Chile’s president. In the eyes of many who cleave to the normative framework of political conflict, this trajectory appears as a sorely needed process of social change. However, as Karmy’s meditations on the experiences and rhythms of October 2019 reveal, the most powerful elements of the revolt are often those least capable of being translated into institutional transformations.
For Karmy, the date “October 18th” marks not simply a night of insurrection, but a fissure that split Chilean history open, like a short circuit that bridged the anger against the Pinochet Dictatorship, the 1990’s transition to democracy, and the present forms of technocratic governance. After decades of violent social control, forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial murder, the political reconciliation that announced the shift from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy was made possible by a series of agreements and accords between Pinochet’s administration, its political supporters, and its centrist and leftist opponents. This meant that throughout the 1990s, Pinochet remained a “senator for life” and the head of the Chilean military, while his 1981 constitution enshrining the Chicago boy’s neoliberal principles remained in place.
Although social democrats and progressives like to present the rampant inequalities and political restrictions that plague contemporary Chile as institutional hangovers from the dictatorship, the Chilean left has its own part to play in this history. As Karmy shows, their inability to break away from “the transitional episteme” has committed them to a pragmatic framework of political conflict, which prioritizes the restoration of a shared legitimacy and the practical matter of governability over all expressions of “popular,” i.e., everyday people’s concern for justice, dignity, and self-respect. If the revolt taught us anything, it’s that the real conflict is not between the camps of left and the right, but between an elitist framework for resolving questions of governance, and a Chilean people who no longer wish to be governed as a population whatsoever.
Whether or not the energy from October 2019 will succeed in breaking out of this transitional episteme remains to be seen. What limitations would need to be overcome, in order for this to happen? In Chile’s capital, it was the state of exception and the military in the streets that allowed the game of mass evasion to be transformed into a general revolt. Yet constitutional states of exception have been declared many times in Chile’s periphery in recent years, without the corresponding eruption of mass revolt. Mapuche communities in Southern Chile have been occupied by the Chilean military since September 2021, in response to an escalation in direct actions against the local elite complicit with extractive industries and ecological destruction earlier that year. In the desert regions along Chile’s northern border, the military has also been called on to police the crisis of mass undocumented immigration spurred by Venezuelans fleeing the economic crisis. This suggests, first, that our understanding of popular revolt must expand beyond the spectacle of urban riots and street demonstrations, to consider what revolt looks like in other territories. At the same time, the concept of “popular” revolt has often been hamstrung by its association with an idea of “the people” as the agent and actor of struggle, whether this be the Nation or various abstract “communities.” As Karmy shows, the protagonists of the Chilean revolt, at the moment they take to the streets, cannot be neatly subsumed under any such categories. In this way, his work not only allows us to see the limitations of the 2019-2021 wave of global uprisings, but also helps us identify potential connections with others struggles internationally that continue to confront similar obstacles.
—Emilio Janequeo, Santiago de Chile, April 2022
Other languages: Español 1 y 2
Whatever happened to this date? Is it just a chronological date? Perhaps, a dislocated number that, while locating itself on a calendar, desperately flees from it. Its potency does not match its figure, its life with its letter. It explodes without referring to any leader, nor to any political party or partisan vanguard. Everything is much more precarious, but at the same time, more resistant, it can flee between the interstices of the city and permanently “evade” the “who” created by police dynamics. “Evade” designated the subtraction of the sensible life of bodies — what we will call “surface” — with respect to the governmental machinery of neoliberal reason.
As if a crack opened in the middle of the road, as if a historical continuum had stopped. The atmosphere normalized the presence of multiple sounds: sirens breaking the city buzz, helicopters machine-gunning the airspace, shots from various weapons filtering through diverse populations, never before images being monitored by images already frozen, songs — Víctor Jara2 or Jorge González3 — penetrating from other times to face a voracious repression; pots and pans biting into the night coming from dark windows and protesters defying the curfew with shouts and hand-to-hand combat against police or military uniforms.
Nights and days were not the same, but they were the same. A single day, hour or minute that condensed days and nights, days and nights as if there was no more difference between them. Other faces ravaged the mornings, other voices dictated the rhythm; the poor, the blind, those who had said “enough” to a life that promised nothing but debts, to an existence that had renounced all historicity, to an agony whose grief paralyzed bodies. The streets were invested with graffiti with which the crowd embraced the moment of their celebration. It all meant that the downward gaze in front of the boss could not carry on. The randomness of the clash was violent: the boss found the servant in the ferocity of a revolt, without the domestication he presupposed, without the ignorance he attributed to him, without the fear that he had instilled in him.
“No fear” is infinitely replicated on the walls of Chile. With no fear, but with rage: a whole generation that had been hardened by the silence of dictatorship imploded in the emergence of rage brought by their children. But anger not as a psychologically manageable emotion, but as a politically ungovernable affect. The entire transitional episteme was made for docile bodies. It was always a matter of modesty, of control, of learning not to demand beyond “what is possible” within a historical and political limit that became ontological. If not, the military could return or the businessmen could flee: fear provided the affective tonality to the transitional episteme. Sociologists, economists and politicians consolidated an upper echelons’ agreement around the prevalence of neoliberal reason. Everyone had to give in because everyone had to accept the established limit that was forged in the formula “as far as possible”.
Those who raged during the dictatorship could faint in the desolation of democracy, those who fought during the dictatorship had to tame their spirits in the new transitional machinery. But injustice remained unredeemed. And it is that fissure that always challenged the transitional episteme that is actualized in the politicization of anger that ends up leading the Chilean government machine to bankruptcy.
Rage has been the ardor of an injustice that went beyond the psychological sphere captured by neoliberal confiscation and, like a blast crossing two eras at once, it left historicity in the hands of children: “He who doesn’t know about children, knows nothing of riots.” A revolt leads a people to experience its in-fancy, precisely, the inactuality with oneself, the strange thunder of its untimeliness. Usual spaces and times are shattered into a thousand pieces. And the revolt reminded us that the most decisive tremor, the adjustment with our historicity, is nothing more than a future that is inherited.
It is not a question of “future” as a horizon that owns a precise direction, but of a future in the sense of a disposition to the possibility of becoming others, in which a potency never rested on some trauma that could foreshadow it in some way, but always remained irreducible to the tricks of the law. It is a power that is nothing more than future and that only its clandestine transfer of the impersonality of a common can make it possible for bodies to know what it is that they are actually capable of. Because this potency is defined by its transmissibility and it becomes nothing more than an affirmation of life that escapes any suture provided by power. The future is inherited precisely because the bodies were able to “evade” the fear inoculated by the oligarchy during their years of dictatorship and in the convoluted transition.
The gaze of the former servant — like that passive “Indian” before the colonist — does not bow his head in front of power, but rather defies it and suffers the direct destruction of its eyes. The servant burns everything, launching himself in his martyrological potency for yesterday’s dead, for those who were defeated in the past. Rage burns everything on history’s pyre, without the authorization by the masters who once crushed the native, the worker, the student. In-fancy dislocating the civilized continuity between life and language to lead us to the cleft of popular imagination: the only barricade that connects bodies with surfaces, the new with the old, life with its forms.
The entire university apparatus, with its knowledge of order, believes that the revolt is a “social phenomenon.” A reduction to causalism by current sociology, when truly the revolt is a medium of common sensibility in which the spirits of the past embrace the incandescence of our present. Thousands of Chileans knew this when they sang “The right to live in peace” (El derecho de vivir en paz) by Victor Jara or “The dance of those left behind” (El baile de los que sobran). Uncle Ho, who fought against North American imperialism, became a surplus, a remnant, much like the municipalized students of the 1980s, ungovernable who transmitted potency from one moment to another, who inherited the future to those who could hear the intensity of their voice. That is why October 18 is not a date, but rather an artifact of spiritualism by which the defeated were able to “evade” the historical cruelty of the victors.
One of the first days of protests I found myself at 11am in Plaza Italia. I was going to the demonstration called for 2pm, but decided to arrive earlier to get a feel for the atmosphere. After all, politics is always an atmospheric affair. I began walking from Plaza Italia towards the Andes, that is, towards the Salvador Metro station and the landscape was made up of the rubble after the battle. On Sunday, there was a large demonstration, and protests continued during the night, in the midst of the declaration of a curfew. There was the sour smell of tear gas along the road, burning the skin; burned plastic occasionally penetrated the urban ruin. Some shops were burnt, others were intact: The Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center (GAM) was intact, the Kentucky Fried Chicken branch was burnt; the theater of the University of Chile was intact, the branch of the Bank of Chile was completely burnt.
Popular violence is not a “Hobbesian violence”5 but a violence interrupting capitalist symbolism. These are not vandals who simply destroy everything they touch, but molecular movements that, most of the time, direct their fury against the signs of power. But this does not mean, that once the revolt is in full swing, several criminal gangs will not penetrate the popular din to progressively restore exchange value from within, inoculating economy into what the revolt had made aneconomical. Precisely: every revolt runs at a loss. The aneconomy of the revolt interrupts “the normal flow” of the country’s capital, the institutions stop working, temporality is strongly suspended. The upsetting of reality, a necessary elixir of revolt, is a sign that a people has broken out as a revolt.
Because no revolt carries with it the sign of purity. It is dirty, full of mixtures that flourish in the suspension of historical time it has opened. Every revolt fights against its own centrifugal forces, because its power is measured in the ability to remove sovereign violence that, however, tries to capture it permanently. For this reason, a revolt must bring into play an untimely relationship with the present. It never fits with itself because it wildly differs from itself. We cannot demand purity and hygiene from a revolt, because all dynamics oriented towards cleansing or purification symbolize the triumph of sacrificial or sovereign violence that the revolt is destituting. It is sacrifice that purifies, sacrifice that cleanses the world to slaughter the goats that crystallize the new evil on earth.
Sacrifice is precisely the weapon of all reactionary politics, waiting like a shadow within the state formula: “no people has ever doubted that there was an expiatory virtue in the effusion of blood,” wrote Joseph De Maistre in his Treatise on sacrifices.6 Precisely because the violence of the revolt deposes the sacrificial dynamic, because in it the martyrological power is at stake, that is, the one that seals without blood the revocation of all sovereignty: “A political execution”, asserts Paul W. Kahn, “read as an act of martyrdom, proclaims the weakness, not the strength of the state.”7 This is because martyrdom threatens to “expose the state and its claim to authority as nothing.”8 Popular violence is martyrological in this sense: its potency destitutes9 sovereign violence, exposing its weakness and dissolving its claim to authority as nothingness.
It does not destroy, but destitutes; it does not establish, but revokes. It breaks the subject supposed to know that has erected the discourse, making it fall like a mask, and it can do nothing but exercise sacrificial violence so as to restore order. All calls from the government and the occasional political actor to dialogue are based on the sacrificial fiction, in which all the agents in conflict get solved in the same general equivalent: police lives are as much of a victim of violence as those of citizens who have fallen under the military bullet or police hunt. The government’s discourse is sacrificial precisely when it condemns violence “wherever it comes from.” This sets it up to exercise the greatest violence of all — sovereign violence precisely — which is such because it can crush all the other types of violence that it considers simply sectorial.
But in addition, the sacrificial paradigm raised by the state discourse restores, in turn, capital, to the extent that it restores the equivalent codification that enables state violence to be reconciled in the same unit with the torn revolt of a citizenry out in the open. The martyr breaks sacrifice to the same extent that it exposes its nothingness. Could we say that the notion of sovereignty once proposed by philosopher Georges Bataille is that of a true and properly martyrological sovereignty inasmuch as it implodes the moment it is exercised?10 And if this is so, would not the Schmittian conception of sovereignty be one that has not assumed the radical nature of its concept, that has never lived up to what it proclaims?11
In any case, the term “martyrdom” has had a bad name because, from my point of view, it has always been conceived under the sacrificial aura or, what is the same, it has always been represented from the point of view of the victors who appropriated its concept to capitalize on it in terms of the restitution of order. Using the well-known Benjaminian distinction between pure and mythical violence, I would like to differentiate martyrdom from sacrifice and maintain that the first refers to a popular violence of a redemptive and destituent nature that establishes or preserves nothing and, the latter is oligarchic violence oriented towards the establishment and preservation of order.
In this light, a revolt is martyrological and not sacrificial, and brings with it the courage of living labor in which the affirmation of a potency is played out, rather than the consolidation of power. Beyond the purification of liberal discourse that condemns all violence, wherever it comes from, thereby trying to exempt itself from sacrificial dynamics while reproducing them, it is necessary to vindicate the violence opened up by the revolt that, however, suspends the sacrificial violence that, time and again, does nothing more than exert its mythical death power. It is not a matter of aestheticizing it, but to assume the materiality with which it denounces the injustice of the current state of affairs, exposing sovereign power to the nakedness of its nothingness.
A revolt is never welcome. Crowds don’t know whether to laugh or cry in front of it. They don’t know if it happens for better or worse, precisely because it does not obey any telos or any guarantee to the extent that it exposes the fragility of our bodies before history’s elements. But a revolt never comes in a uniform shape or mode, but is always different, multiple and intense. It is also unpredictable. All efforts to identify its causes always come to a limit. Knowledge goes bankrupt. And suddenly, everyone remembers the thousand reports that kept on showing the misery of our conditions. But at such a moment, we wonder: if the conditions were already there, why did the fuse light at this moment? Why not before or after? Between the conditions and their outbreak, something key always takes place: a murder, an act of radical injustice against certain bodies, committed by the exercise of State violence.
In the Arab Spring, the immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in front of the police station was the imaginal operator that triggered the revolt. In Chile on October 18, thousands of high school students who had evaded the Metro turnstiles were brutally repressed by the police force. Five days after the proclamation of the State of Constitutional Exception, accompanied a nightly curfew apparatus, national and international Human Rights organizations were counting the death toll by State agents as the fierce way in which sacrificial violence was being deployed in the streets of a flooded city.
The revolt breaks out in various ways, an organization can take over — such as the one articulated today by Unidad Social. Like the Unified National Leadership of the Uprising, which articulated a minimum organization during the 1987 Palestinian intifada, Unidad Social could also become an “agency” (a “support” according to Judith Butler)12 born out of the revolt itself to keep its work alive and not to confiscate it in a dead and completely bankrupt representational apparatus. Because, in the midst of the bankruptcy of a state model violently implemented in 1973, we are witnessing a beginning.
We do not know what will happen or how events will unfold. But in the face of the devastation wrought by the dictatorship and later by the transition, directing its efforts to separate bodies from their potency, lives from their images, in a neutralization process, the revolt restored their intensity. Faced with the neoliberal body confiscated by the company form — turned “to prey”, said Guadalupe Santa Cruz — the revolt restored a body potency. The fascination experienced by the participants in a political process such as this is entirely linked to the surprise that awaits the conscience — that poor counselor — of what a body can do, what bodies can do. Because the revolt throws us into this: a hand-to-hand combat.
We never imagined what our bodies could do, we were never aware of it. How could we be, if consciousness — that representational apparatus — does nothing more than instill fear in us and push us to calculate our every movement? The revolt is aneconomic precisely because it does not calculate and always runs at a loss. We have already lost comrades in struggle, eyes, academic calendars, international events (APEC-COP 25) and we will continue to lose. Everything has been suspended, then, as Furio Jesi saw: unlike a revolution, a revolt implies the “suspension of historical time.”13 A suspension that brings with it a radical loss, an unconditional expenditure that is impossible to foresee, but also the opening of a beginning in which we can re-imagine another historical era. It is precisely that beginning that we must embrace today with all the forces of history. Without it, we will not only be left without a future or a past, but above all we will be stripped of the heat of a present.
Rodrigo Karmy Bolton’s The Future is Inherited is now available in English from les presses du réel
Images: Tomas Munita
1. First published in El Desconcierto on November 27, 2019. ↰
2. Victor Jara (1932-1973) was a Chilean theater director, actor, playwright and folklore researcher, but generally known as a singer-songwriter, who actively participated in the Popular Unity’s presidential campaign. He was arrested after the coup in 1973 and was sent to the “Estadio Chile” (currently called “Víctor Jara Stadium”) where he was tortured and killed by the military. One of his most relevant songs was “The right to live in peace”, which Jara wrote inspired by Ho Chi Min and the Vietnam War. This song was massively sung during the recent protests along the country. —Editorial note.↰
3. Jorge González was the leader of Los Prisioneros, one of the main musical bands in recent Chilean history. Formed during the 1980s, they became a critical voice to the political and social order established by the dictatorship. One of their key songs was “The dance of those left behind”, which was massively sung during the protests in Plaza Dignidad. —Editorial note.↰
4. Originally published in Ficción de la Razón on October 29, 2019, as part of the special dossier “Estado generales de emergencia” coordinated by Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott and Mauricio Amar.↰
5. José Joaquín Brunner. Democracia, violencia y perspectivas futuras. Online here.↰
6. Joseph De Maistre. Tratado sobre los sacrificios. México, Sexto Piso, 2009, 24-25. ↰
7. Walter Benjamin, “On the Critique of Violence.” ↰
8. Paul W. Kahn. El liberalismo en su lugar. Santiago, Universidad Diego Portales, 2018, 112. ↰
9. The English edition incorrectly renders “destitutes/destituent” throughout as “dismisses.” —Note added by Ill Will.↰
10. Georges Bataille. Lo que entiendo por soberanía. Buenos Aires, Paidós, 1996. ↰
11. Carl Schmitt. Teología política. Cuatro ensayos sobre el concepto de soberanía. Buenos Aires, Struhart y Cia., 2005. ↰
12. Judith Butler. Cuerpos aliados y lucha política. Hacia una teoría performativa de la asamblea. Buenos Aires, Paidós, 2017.↰
13. Furio Jesi. Spartakus. The Symbology of Revolt, Translated by Alberto Toscano, Seagull Books, Ch. 2. Online here. ↰