“Indignation is Only the First Step”: A Discussion with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman

By Zoltán Glück

Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman are two of the most prominent leaders of the Chilean student movement that has been seriously challenging the established political order in Chile through its mass mobilizations, university occupations, and broad popular support. They were invited to the Washington, DC to accept the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award and made a brief stop-over in New York City to meet student organizers from the US and Quebec. I caught up with Camila and Noam in New York after their talk at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Zoltán Glück: What is the relationship between the student movement and broader expressions of resistence against Neoliberalism in Chile. Would you say that the student movement in Chile an anti-capitalist movement?

Camila Vallejo: Well, the Chilean student movement, and I think this is true of social movements in general, don’t usually define themselves as anti-capitalist in their slogans. Although in practice of course we promote the fight against capitalism. In our demands there is a social vision that is opposed to the capitalist system and its neoliberal expression in Chile. For example, when we say that the Chilean state should become a true guarantor of material rights, that is certainly antithetical to the neoliberal capitalist vision which turns rights into a business to be regulated by the market. We champion the redistribution of wealth; we don’t believe that a single group or class should control all wealth or appropriate all our natural resources and they certainly should not be allowed to concentrate all of the country’s financial capital. We believe there must be a redistribution of wealth as well as a diversification of the means of production so that they are not in the hands of a cadre of elites or transnational corporations. We contend that the neoliberal model is contrary to democracy because it concentrates all power in the hands of the few, in Chile that means in the hands of approximately 4500 families, while the rest lose out and struggle to get by. But our primary battle in Chile is not Capitalism in its totality. Rather, our demands articulate a proposal for an alternative model for education and a radically different social vision. I won’t say that we champion “Socialism” in some simple ideal form, but we are definitely talking about a radicalization of democracy and a radical departure from neoliberalism.

ZG: Many of us here in the United States have been following the movement for the past two years, we’ve seen the massive and impressive street protests and have been following your campaigns. In your assessment, where Chilean student movement today and where is it going?

Noam Titelman: Well, I think we’re at a decisive moment because we’ve been around for almost two years now. In 2011 with a lot of presence in the streets, this year perhaps with a little less presence in the streets but still with some really massive rallies (for example, over 100,000 just in Santiago). But this year we’ve gone to the parliament a lot more and to large institutions in a concerted effort to make some real changes through those channels. But really, I think we’re at a really critical point because we’re going to be forced to make some hard decisions very soon as we’ll be facing our first national elections as a movement. This year’s elections are perhaps not as important as the ones next year (this year being the municipal level elections). Another thing that has happened in the past year has been the veritable explosion of wide variety of different movements and organizing around Chile. Not only student organizations, a lot of people started to feel empowered to work on their future, on their lives. This has expressed itself in certain emergent forms of leadership and actual leaders that are very noticeably starting to transcend exclusively “educational” sector. Camila, Georgio and others and examples of this trend. The question now is how is that going to materialize in concrete change, because we’ve been around for a little while now, and that’s fine, to just be there—to be on the streets and everything—but people are starting to wonder: when will all of this start this bring results? It’s not enough just to prove a point and to say that certain things are wrong. And it’s been really hard as we’ve had a very resilient government that has been able to weather all of these critiques and not change course. Even though it has one of the lowest popularity ratings in our history, it has decided to maintain its agenda. We’ve  also tried to make push through some smaller changes and on this front we’ve had some small successes, such as lowering the tax rate, removing the banks from the system university financing…

ZG: What do you mean by removing the banks?

NT: Well, the students get loans from the banks and then the state worked as a guarantor, such that if the students defaulted on their loans the state would simply pay for it: so the banks really didn’t care if the students could pay or not. As you can imagine, this is good business for the banks: it’s a perfect circle…

ZG: So how did you remove the banks from this process?

NT: The government agreed to remove the banks from this system after a long campaign and the general pressure of the movement. But there are still so many things that have to change. For example at the school level there was virtually no change whatsoever, and even in higher education all of the structural issues are still practically the same. At least in Chile, the system still works on this notion that the state’s only function is to subsidize demand and let the market take care of everything. But as we’ve seen, the problem is that this produces growth in private sector, but only rather weak and artificial growth based on cheap credit which has become the way to finance what I’ve been calling “fast food universities.” You know, our universities are like the ads you see for burgers: on the billboard it’s big and juicy but then you buy it and it is small, shriveled up, and tastes like cardboard. The other problem is that, due to the availability of cheap credit, what happens is that these universities have large rates of people who enter but who don’t finish their degree. Or, they do finish but just to find that their degrees are worthless. Because even if they finish and get their degrees, they find that by the end of it they are so indebted that their chances for a good professional life are just lost.

ZG: I have a question which is about the concept of Horizontalidad or “horizontalism”. Here in New York, and particularly throughout Occupy Wall Street the concept of horizontalism has been quite an important part of the political language. For example, a lot of people have been inspired by the Argentinian example of Horizontalidad and how it functioned in neighborhood assemblies. I’m wondering how, if at all, the Chilean movement grapples with the concept of horizontalism.

CV: A part our organic maturation as a movement, and as political subjects, has entailed learning how to balance the use of representative democracy with more participatory or direct forms of democracy. Throughout, we have consistently worked to protect spaces for debate, like the assembly, which are horizontal spaces within our political structure. But remember, we also have to maintain our existing organizational forms that are more structured and perhaps hierarchical. I don’t think that it’s enough to simply maintain the spaces of horizontality without the larger representation-based structures: rather, we’re trying to reach a kind of synthesis. And I do think we have made progress in terms of knowing how to complement representative democracy with spaces of direct democracy. This approach has been more or less effective in terms of the attitude it generates within the movement, and it has also been effective in terms of how we approach leadership, maintaining bases, and avoiding a dissipation of political energy. I think it’s important to remember that horizontalidad (in and of itself) often struggles to bring about the kinds of united actions that voting at each step of the way can achieve. But we could also see this unity of action coupled with voting each of step and horizontal debate, as a kind of synthesis that eventually produces something like horizontal democracy.

NT: Yeah, I think that horizontalidad is a two way street. And you have to remember that it’s a means to an end and not an end itself. Why do I say this? Well, first let me say that I think the Chilean movement does place a special emphasis on its decision-making processes and does truly want to involve everyone in these processes. But one of the reasons that the movement has been able to build such strength has been its ability to concentrate its collective force in an organized fashion. That is, not just leaving decisions to the sort of ritualistic or experiential feeling of being in one place with a lot of people and discussing things, but actually putting them into action. And this obviously requires a high degree of organization. I think there is a danger that by criticizing institutions, we end up criticizing organization and that’s really a big mistake. I think that horizontalidad allows us to make sure that the decisions are made by everyone, but in the execution of those decisions we need to have some sort of organization, otherwise we are doomed to be in a beautiful, noble, and naïve movement but not a not very efficient one.

ZG: Does the actual concept of horizontalidad come up in the discourse, or at your meetings, or in the ideas of student leaders in the union?

NT: Well, I think we had a different concept—similar but different—its called los bases. Los bases literally means “the bases,” the foundations, or the “grass-roots.” The idea is that it’s the bases that have to make the important decisions. So, for example, every time the government came up with some proposition or offer, we’d tell them that it would take us some time to answer because we would have to take their proposition back to our bases and discuss it. The form that this took was rather elaborate. You see we have the CONFECH which, instead of having a single president, is run by a sort of “round table” composed of about 10 presidents of different federations and around which everyone is supposed be equal. Those 10 presidents are, for example, the representatives that would go to a meeting with the government and when the government puts forward proposition it would be these 10 that would have to take the proposition back to the rest of the student federations, which in total could be about 40 federations. Those student federations would then take the proposition to the student centers in their respective universities—and usually there are student centers for every department.  Those student centers would then bring the proposition to their principle decision making body, for example a general assembly, where any student can go and vote.

Another way to put it is that each department has its own student center and its assembly which makes decisions. At the next level, the directorate of each of the student centers (e.g. the president, vice-president, general secretary, etc.) come together in a larger assembly in which they are meant to represent the will and execute the decisions made by the smaller department-level assemblies. The decisions then made at this level are taken to the Confederation which is where all of the federations come together and take a decision. Finally, this confederation elects certain federations (these are the 10 presidents I was taking about) as an executive group (that is, as the executors of the will of the whole confederation). So, you see, once a decision is made at the bottom level, it is taken all the way back up to this round table at the CONFECH which would be responsible for executing the decision. But of course there were other times when the round table had to make quick decisions and that was also very important—well, not the most fundamental decisions, but some decisions.

Anyways, I think we learned a lot. Of course, we have a lot of past experience with social movements—this isn’t the first time that we’ve had a massive rally or strikes or things like that. But on the operational level I think we’ve learned how to be more efficient and how to achieve what we want to do, while at the same time, not letting the most visible faces of the movement overshadow the importance of the bases which are our foundation.

ZG: What has the relationship between public and private university students been like in the movement?

CV: Before 2012 we began to elaborate a politics regarding the private system problem. This is an effort not only coming from the public universities, but one that has been forged in conversation with a number of organizations that have students from the private world, because the reality is that it’s actually quite hard to organize the private schools. They are prohibited from organizing in a number of ways, for example, they are all made to sign agreements before matriculating, etc. We think of what we’re doing as defending education—and this means from within the private system as well—as putting forward a counter-hegemonic conception of education that is opposed to the market-driven educational system; a conception that universities should have state regulations preventing them from turning a profit on the state’s resources in the form of grants or loans, that they should not be allowed to profit off of families that are going into debt, that they should be democratically run, which is to say that they should guarantee, at the very least, that students have the right to form associations. We also demand that these institutions maintain a certain of quality education, because for most private universities, education just about the paper you get at the end. The education is of poor quality, it leaves students with massive debts, and at the end of it they sell you a paper diploma that isn’t even worth anything. So, as we’ve been putting forward this critique and problematization of the private university system we’ve found that more and more private university students are becoming interested and involved with the movement. I also think that generally, because of the movement, more people have begun to see and understand the principle contradictions of this for-profit commercial-education model. Most Chilean families have a child in the private university world, and the abuses of power and profit in the private system are becoming more and more excessive. So, after 2011 some federations from the private system applied to be incorporated in the CONFECH, which, as you know, is the umbrella organization that brings together a large number of federations from the traditional universities. There was long discussion in the CONFECH and in the end we decided to include those federations whose leadership structure was democratically elected. Now we have about seven or eight private university federations in the CONFECH, which, of course, is a great step forward. The problem is that there is still a huge universe of students in the private world that don’t have real student organizations, or if they do they are really inchoate and are organized according to a different structure. What’s important to understand, though, is that private university students have played a pivotal role in the student movement. That students from the private system marched in the streets made a huge impact in terms of sheer number, but also in terms of politics. The government has always hid behind the private schools, saying that they would not respond to the demands of public university students because public university students are the “privileged” ones, and that they must continue with the same funding schemas for private institutions because those schools serve the poorest students in the country.  We fundamentally disagree with this line of argumentation. We believe that public education must be defended and that the private system must be regulated, and if the state continues to give these institution public resources, which belong to all Chileans and come from our taxes, then they should really be our universities. Anyway, we’ve made some large strides towards bringing the public and private worlds into the same fold. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us in the private world.

ZG: I’d like to ask a question about how the Chilean movement has politicized the student body. In some ways I think that the situation here in the United States shares important similarities with situation in Chile, in that the general privatization of education has been taking place for so many years in both places and the idea that education is a commodity is already seemingly deeply embedded within our cultural common-sense. I’m wondering how it was that you were able to counter-act this idea of education-as-commodity and build popularly within the student body a more radical conception of what education is or could be.

NT: That’s a very good question. I mean we could begin by asking: how can a student strike affect anything other than the students themselves?  It’s not like a worker’s strike where its obvious that the owner of the company is going to be affected if there is a strike. I think that a student strike is a really effective way to communicate a message. And the effectiveness of the strike depends on the effectiveness of the message. I think the big struggle (and it is still a big struggle) is to change what is taken as common sense in our society. And that has to do with the control of the media. I think that the media makes it very hard to force a change in the common sense. But there are ways to overcome those things. For example, as what really helped the movement become a mass movement was the creativity in the way we rallied and mobilized. Using things like flash mobs, “Thriller” skits for education and zombie rallies, massive theatrical suicides, or “die-ins” for education and so many other things that were done over the past year, like running 1,800 laps around the office of the president (representing the 1,800 million pesos it would take to fund higher education), and so on. And all of these actions contributed to communicating more or less efficiently the message, partly by using the media, and partly by directly showing that this is something that is close to the people. It’s not some fringe or radical movement, its just normal people asking for normal rights that they should have had all along.

ZG: How has the question of debt factored into the dynamics of the student movement?

NT: I think it was essential, especially at the beginning. Because debt was an issue that allowed the movement to have more than just a student oriented politics and become a movement about citizenship more broadly. It became a movement for everyday people because debt was something that everybody could relate to. People in Chile are deeply in debt, and especially in these last years most of the economic growth has been due to the growth of debt. And here I mean debt in many other forms: because we’ve had such strong privatization not only of the educational system but also of the health system, of the housing system, of the old age pension system, everyone went into debt just to survive. So when the student movement came along, people felt that the problem of debt was a problem they could relate to; it made a lot of sense to people and that’s what helped turn the movement into more of a mass movement.

ZG: What does solidarity mean to you? How do you see our struggles as connected, and how can we as students and activists here in New York stand in solidarity with the Chilean student struggle?

CV: First, we have to recognize that neoliberalism, and the capitalist system in general, is global in its reach. Its effects are not simply restricted to one country but rather worldwide in its repercussions and only a few countries have managed to successfully combat the neoliberal agenda. It is a general condition that affects us all, which is to say it strips us of our basic rights, our work, our vital energies, our natural resources, and thus creates inequality and generates an accumulation of economic power in the hand of the few. So when you look at movements, it’s a question of understanding both their particularity and their generality. The Chilean case is particular, but the things we are fighting against (and for) have global and general dimensions. Neoliberalism functions as a global system and for that reason we will always have a lot to fight against; not just locally, but at the global scale as well. So, in this sense solidarity is really important, but not the kind of solidarity that limits itself to producing declarations of support; rather, the solidarity which seeks to generate enduring spaces for long term organization and collective struggle. Because if you’re not getting down to the real issues, and only producing testimonials of support when mobilizations are already happening—I mean, that’s all well and fine, but that kind of organizing is not going to endure in the long run.

We must also be able to formulate proposals and elaborate alternatives to what we are criticizing. If we remain at the level of indignation I don’t think it will serve us very well. Which is to say that indignation is only the first step, the next step is taking action, and to take action you need to have a plan. In order to propose solutions one must be sure that these solution are effective, or rather that they can be materialized. And in order for such solutions to materialize it’s not enough just to march and demonstrate in the streets; I believe that our solutions need to be proposed and then supported by the broader social world in an organized and articulate fashion and must be expressed in spaces of power. When social movements are political, their politics will always have to contend with existing power; if you don’t wield power yourself in some way in order to realize your proposal, it will always be others who are speaking for you.

And this is something that the movement has not done yet. We’ve questioned the established order, put the dominant class in check, etc. But at the end of the day, if we are unable to take power we’ll end up losing perspective and become disillusioned, and this is how movements disperse, disappear and perhaps after ten years reemerge. I really think that we can’t afford to let this happen. And here, in terms of “international solidarity,” what we have to do is say to ourselves, “listen, we have identified the problem, but now we have to be responsible for the solution and actively begin constructing alternatives for my country, and all the while we must fight for a global perspective.” This means having a political impact in institutional spaces.

ZG This brings up another question that I’d like to ask: which is how has the student movement linked up with other movements in Chile? The Mapuche movement was mentioned earlier today by Camila, but I’ also curious about the labor movement. How has it been able to link up?

NT: I think it has been a long time dream for students to have stronger relations with other social movements. But I think its important not to be naïve. We have to remember that these kinds of projects, and not just in Chile but all over the world, have historically had major difficulties in bridging the two worlds. I think that one of the biggest challenges is for us to stay humble and for students to remember that we are not saviors—we may be able to help, like anybody else, but we are not saviors. But even that is harder than it sounds. You know, most of the time when students take this stuff on and start working in, say, inner city schools or with other minority groups, they have a tendency to take on a hero complex, which I think is actually really devastating for truly working with other sectors of society. I think that we’ve taken some important steps towards overcoming this kind of attitude but it is still a challenge. This year we went out and did work in the communities a little bit. But, you know, I think that the biggest thing that we’ve been able to do for other struggles is to use the media attention that we’ve received to try get their voices heard. But honestly, it’s been very hard and there are no easy answers. As for the Mapuche, yeah, we mention theme wherever we go, as we did today, but still it’s a very big challenge. I think that one of the most interesting cases of really trying to work across struggles were the uprisings outside of Santiago in the some of the farthest regions where a variety of social organizations (including students organizations) managed to have more a more transversal or “horizontal” kind of feeling. You know, no one is considered higher than another, no one is more important than another. But generally, I think that question of working with other movements, social sectors, and struggles, is still a massive challenge that we have moving forward.

ZG: What is communism for you?

CV: Well, to begin with, for me communism is a far cry from what became of the lamentable Soviet Union experience. The Soviet example has had such strong and tragic repercussions for communism and communists at world scale. But for me, what “communism” means, as I mentioned to you earlier, is really a process of radically deepening democracy. Communism seeks not only to guarantee human rights for all men and women, but also to guarantee equality in economic terms, and that in all such matters each individual should be able to contribute according to his or her capacity and receive according to his or her needs—this of course is the great theme that we share as communists. This is fundamentally a question of how to structure society in terms of its economic relations. It implies human emancipation in material terms, but in intellectual and moral terms as well. I continue to believe in the possibility of buidling communism in my country, as well as in any other country. And if they tell me that communism has never worked, I contend that we have not yet actually seen communism. What happened in the Soviet Union was an attempt at socialism, but it certainly never achieved communism.

I think that in most cases communism isn’t able to emerge under socialism because of the economic limitations of the given socialist society and, as we know, no true socialism can develop without international relationships that allow it to survive. And China is no exception. Anyways, I am sure that we’ll still have chances to experiment and more opportunities in the future to try to construct communism and a more democratic life.

2 comments to ““Indignation is Only the First Step”: A Discussion with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titleman”
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