Chile: an example of disempowerment?
Human agency in individual and collective projects of transformation under a neoliberal
University of Essex
Abstract The paper explores the role of agency in the emergence of political visions among leaders of
Chilean urban popular organisations in a context of extended demobilisation and decline of former
visibility of collective action. Stemming from the notion of disempowerment, I aim at investigating
the eventual limits that social theory has to give proper account of individuals‟ agency within experiences of social transformation. In this, I aim to contribute at re-positioning the relevance of
analysing individuals‟ trajectories, personal experiences and initiatives within the frame of attention
of social sciences. I conclude that conversely to prevailing analyses, consciousness and
responsibility are widely expressed by some leaders revealing their capacity to overcome
oppressing forms of governmentality under a neoliberal consensus. While the impacts of the latter
remain uncertain, this study offers an open path of research for both active and analytical forms of
The philosophical issue at stake is that of how, if actors are fully cultural and social beings,
they can do anything which is not already present, suggested or imposed on them by their
society or social group (Ortner, 1984: 155; McNay, 1992: 61 in Rossi 2004: 4)
Chile has often been described as one of the most prosperous countries in the Latin
American region and a model to imitate in terms of political and macro-economic
1 This paper is based on the work of research I have been developing in the past 3 years, including my MA
dissertation at the University of Essex, the PhD in Sociology I am currently working on at the same institution,
and the study “The dynamic of interface in the processes of reform of the state, decentralisation and
democratisation in the local space” co-developed with Margarita Fernandez. Therefore, the ideas that I
develop here have been the product of multiple conversations and interaction with many people who have
deeply influence these arguments. Special compliments go to the many leaders I interviewed, their
testimonies and their daily work, that show that the belief in a better society is still possible. I also want to
thank Jane Brown and Carlos Gigoux for their useful comments when writing this draft.
conduction. In effect, in the past 15 years, poverty has decreased from an estimated 44.4%
in 1987 (CEPAL 1991: 10 in Weyland 1997: 40), to an 18.8% in 2003 (CASEN 2003).
Thus, after the severe living conditions experienced under the military dictatorship (1973-
1989), during democracy (1990 onwards) the Chilean population has not only enjoyed a
general state of peace and tranquillity, but also a relative improvement in their well-being.
However, the drastic economic and social transformations of the last 30 years have deeply
marked the Chilean people, their subjectivities, and structural context. On the one hand,
people have better access to the market and their possibilities of consumption have
increased. On the other hand, trust in social links has severely deteriorated, while people
increasingly seek refuge in the networks that the family or closer friends provide. “Acting
together” does not provide any referent to change the conditions of the country, while it is
believed that it is only by individual effort that people can improve their living conditions
(UNDP 2000: 201). Subjective insecurity concerning issues such as delinquency, or
stability to deal with a changing and challenging environment affects every Chilean.
However, in a country where massive gaps of inequality and exclusion are among the
2 highest in the planet, it is the poor the most affected by the latter feelings.
In particular, Chile has often provided a useful field from which to analyse the general
operation and paradoxes of neoliberalism. While most approaches to overcome poverty are
sustained on the strengthening of „social capital‟, the crude reality speaks of a wide-spread
situation in which demobilisation and distrust are the common features of such a society.
This continues despite participation does persist through localised, often governmental-
sponsored and eventual activities (De la Maza 2001, 2005b; UNDP 2000). At the same time,
2th Chile is ranked the 7 among the most unequal countries in the world (World Bank 2005)
much of the promissory evaluations of the country with respect to its economic performance and „democratic‟ conduction have as counterparts a limited perception of future changes. Hence, the political alliance under rule since 1990 has not been able to significantly address the „growth with equity‟s‟ agenda and has not presented an articulated political project, further to recovering democracy once dictatorship was overthrown (De la
3 The situation would, therefore, seem pretty stable from the Maza and Ochsenius 2005).
outside. While the economic conditions are indeed improving for most Chileans, despite the increasing income gap, few signs of change are seen from social or institutional actors.
Yet, it also seems interesting to recover the dimension of the “individual” in the sociological research and analysis, and Chile, once more, offers a privileged position from which to observe how internal dynamics and forces might be unleashed. Even when nostalgia appears when looking at the radical attempts of the past, I will argue in this paper that much more work is indeed needed around the internal fractures that emerge within situations of apparent hegemonic consensus. The latter can take the form of daily subversion and resistance, or even of articulated visions of social change, that are deployed by human beings situated in determinate settings and contexts. For as stable and passive a society might seem, it is often only in the simplistic vision of the analyst from where complexities and tensions are unnoticed. Efforts to recast such an approach are needed because of the undoubted analytical contributions that a perspective deepening on the interfaces among meanings and practices on the part of different actors (Long 1992) could
3 This paper is written at a particular political conjunction, in which a new presidential period is being initiated with the first woman as a President of Chile, Michelle Bachellet. She has profusely announced important changes to the way in which government has been conducted during the past 15 years. These changes are yet to be seen.
provide. More importantly, this is also necessary because of the impact that such an
analysis could have. First, it forces us to explore for appropriate methods that could give
account of the individual as a locus from where to explore subtle dialectics of change;
secondly, it leads us to recognise the boundaries of generalisation towards the
understanding of micro-spheres of social change. Finally, it contributes to articulate visions
of change, capturing potential emerging projects and initiatives, that would otherwise
remain overlooked. The latter of course, depends on which kind of sociology we want to
construct in time.
This paper tries to relocate the focus on the individual in her/his capacity to generate impact
and change. This will be done from the analysis of leaders of urban popular organisation in
a neoliberal and demobilised Chile. Stemming from the notion of disempowerment, I aim to explore the eventual limits of social theory to give a proper account of individuals‟ agency
to engage in experiences of social transformation. In this, I aim to contribute to re-
positioning the relevance of analysing individuals‟ trajectories, personal experiences and
initiatives within the frame of attention of social sciences.
2. Recovering the notion of the individual within the „sociological imagination‟ “Disempowerment” seems to be a major concept of this era. While individuals understand
they live in a reality where they can hardly change major structural elements, they are
forced to believe that they are “the owners of their destiny”. Hence, „agents‟ are in a way
forced to establish active and protective social networks, and to act “rationally”, to follow their own interests and persistently struggle to find the way to a blurred dream of stability.
In a country like Chile, where collective action does not seem to provide any source of
hope in social change, individual capacity to “initiate something entirely new” (Arendt 1969) appears to be severely damaged. Yet, individuals‟ consciousness, and capacity to potentially act in different or unexpected ways, remains a matter to analyse.
This is not to say that people do not necessarily face huge structural limitations, but that even when individuals are far conscious that they could overcome some of these, they would not do much. It is this certainty what I am referring to as the foundational state of disempowerment that manifests within the daily experiences of many human beings throughout the „developed‟ and „developing‟ world. On one hand, this involves a certain level of conformity, as well as the subjective conviction that they will not make a difference.
The latter is either because they do not want to, or because they have little power to make a decisive impact. On the other hand, this notion also attempts at getting to grips with the limited tools they effectively have to make such an impact. In this way, the man that knows that something is happening in a remote region of the world, must deal with a series of objective difficulties to make himself there.
I make this observation for two reasons; firstly, it is often disregarded by social analysis the fact that individuals are in effect quite conscious about being externally and internally constrained to make changes on society. Hence, I believe disempowerment could also thrown light upon the radical act of re-empowering as a reflexive action, i.e., involving not only acts in which one subject is passively “empowered” from the outset (through a programme of development, for instance), but of “empowering” oneself by this consciousness leading to (political) action. Again, the social sciences do not seem to discuss how to develop useful theoretical and practical tools in order to deal with what
seems the most improbable and unlikely thing to happen. In effect, individual human beings, despite being severely constrained or enabled by their structural background, deploy many times their agency to change their living conditions, and more extremely, the general social conditions in which social life is unravelled. More interestingly, we have little analytical constructs with which to understand how such a thing is possible when those commanding these actions are individual persons, rather than anonymous and homogenous “groups”.
Ultimately, the affirmation that being “disempowered” is a common experience throughout neoliberal societies does not imply that this expression has not emerged in previous historical epochs. Conversely, many will argue that forms of collective action have always been unlikely events, and that individuals have faced their destinies alone before. What seems to be original is that this happens in a context where few narratives are available to provide an alternative way out of the neoliberal model (see Fraser and Naples 1997: 1106). Furthermore, this happens while many intentions exist to convince us that we have reached “the end of history” as capable agents (Fukuyama 1992). Put it in other way, given this context, how can we explain that determinate individuals still struggle to remain outside the institutional or social consensus? Moreover, can we say these are individuals who have gone beyond „governmentality‟ as „constraining regimes of rationality acting on their backs‟ as the Foucaldian approach suggests? Furthermore, could we call these efforts as political projects (Gramsci 1994) and if not, what implications do they have to a theory of social change?
A more precise conceptual definition is needed at this point. Initially, I aim for a sociology
that recovers the richness of the individual experience, as those such as Plummer (2001) or
(Bourdieu 1993) have argued, as it is not only within groups, but more radically within the individual person where daily battles are held. These are not only structural-objective
battles (i.e., what to eat, how to pay the rent), but also cognitive and symbolic ones (i.e.,
how to assign meaning, to understand what happens around us). As Rossi (2004) comments,
social theory has scarcely tackled the notions of actors as conscious and responsible
persons. Interestingly, the prevailing analysis within the social sciences concerning why
personal or collective change is such a difficult matter for members of society tend to
remain attached to three focuses. In the first place, there is a long tradition connecting
peoples‟ aims and actions to the structural determinations they face and cannot challenge.
In the second place, in recent years social analysis has mostly focused on the regimens of
rationality that govern individuals‟ lives as „unacknowledged structures‟ (Ferguson 1994,
Foucault 1991a: 79 in Rossi 2002), generating structures of what Foucault named as
“[…] All projects or practices intending to direct social actors to behave in a particular
manner and towards specified ends in which political government is but one of the means of
regulating or directing action” (Watts 1993/1994, 109 in Schild 1998: 97).
In the third place, a common place nowadays is to speak about „agency‟ in its continuous
reference either to discursive regimes or structures that provides resources acting as
constraints and/or enablements (Giddens 1984). In each case, the dimension of the
individual remains highly problematic in at least three dimensions: responsibility of social
actors to initiate “something different to what was expected” (de Vries 1992, Long 1992,
Bebbington et. al. 2004, Mosse 2003, Fung and Olin Wrigth 2001); the level of
consciousness that actors manage to acquire concerning the structural features they must
face in order to produce change (Rossi 2004); and the analysis of the individual within the
Different arguments could be deployed against the statement that the individual is missed in
social analyses. Firstly, psychoanalytical approaches have emerged in recent years as the
central locus from which to analyse the narratives and symbols contained within
individuals‟ discourses. Secondly, structuration theory (Giddens 1983; Archer 2003, 2000, 1996; Stones 2005) has aimed to provide a complementary stance from which to analyse
the relevance of how both structure and human agency interact, conferring to agents the
chance to interfere in the course of things, even if they move in a pre-existent state of
affairs (Long 1992 in Rossi 2004: 5). In this way, approaches emphasising the actor’s
4 perspective (Long 1992) have reappeared into scene.
On the other hand, political theory has a wide tradition in seeking to explain how collective
action is possible either from the perspectives of social movements, civil society and the
social actor (see for instance Touraine 1987; Cohen and Arato 1992; Melucci 1996, Offe
1985, Tilly 1985). These approaches underline the immense impact that citizens acting
together have on institutions, in offering new forms of politics of culture and identity, and
in widening paths of change “from below” (see Alvarez et. al, 1998; Avritzer 2002, among
4 “Applied to the field of development research an actor-oriented approach requires a full analysis of the ways
in which different social actors manage and interpret new elements in their life-worlds, an understanding of
the organizing, strategic and interpretive elements involved, and a deconstruction of conventional notions of
planned intervention.” (Long 1992: 9)
others). In effect, much of the theory produced by leftist circles has sought refuge in the
notion of radical democracy (Mouffe 1992) which is directly connected to theories of
participation and empowerment (Fung and Olin Wright 2001). Very simply put, a direct
democracy which considers citizens‟ views and elections would offer a representational
capital which might improve things considerably. These could be conceived as forms of
human agency within which the poor, and the excluded, are capable of mobilising
themselves to overcome their “destiny”. Yet, social movements as well as organisations are
often conceptualised as homogenous entities where dimensions of internal conflict do not
seem to exist (Berkovitch 1999). In effect, these analyses still leave little room to situations
in which evidence of such mobilisation is absent, once more precluding the „individual‟
projects that could emerge within one setting. In particular, the experience and legitimacy
of leaders, or of dissident members of one organisation, are topics which are rarely
discussed within existing literature. Similarly, complementary research among approaches
(for example, post-structuralist and psychoanalytical), are extremely limited tools used to
explore these contexts. In other words, the potential transformatory impact of individuals,
5 rather than of an abstract „agent‟ or „actor‟, is rarely considered.
In particular, understanding the dynamics of disruption within structures often associated
6with consensus or hegemony (1971), is highly relevant for cases such as the Chilean.
5 Margaret Archer (2003: 5), for instance, does assign a central role to “agents‟ subjective and reflexive
formulation of personal projects –in the light of their objective circumstances”; yet, “[…] agents are defined
as collectivitties sharing the same life-chances” (Archer 2000: 261), only social actors exist in the singular (ibid) as “role incumbents” (ibid: 283).
6 Hegemony can be identified as “a process of articulation of different interests around the gradual and
always renewed implementation of a project for the transformation of society” (Dagnino 1998: 37), aiming at
installing a „conception of the world‟, a set of meanings and values from which to make sense of reality, as
part of a political project. Therefore, if a hegemonic rationality is reigning at a given moment as a form of
Challenging the status quo is not easy in such contexts, especially given the current context
which Dagnino (2003a) describes as one of a “perverse confluence” in the language that is
being deployed within the neoliberal and the „social‟ approaches of participatory
governance. In effect, the assumption of a „demobilised‟ or „disempowered‟ society goes in
tandem with an emphatic interest expressed on the part of national governments and
international (monetary) institutions, on notions such as „empowerment‟ or „social capital‟.
Hence, bestowing “power” to change the conditions of living to an individual (i.e.,
transferring “resources” as education or other forms of human capital), might magically
increase her/his capabilities to solve her needs and problems. Basically, this notion
indicates that people would take control of their lives, instead of “relying on” somebody
else for this, like the state, for example. Empowerment, under prevailing formulations, goes
hand in hand with theories of social capital, referring to the links and bonds of trust and
collaboration that make “societies work” (Putnam 1993). In practice, this would take us to
the image of “capable” individuals that associate among each other to solve their needs.
Similarly, in such a context, the general condition of a country would become more
“reliable” for capital and investment, both foreign and national, while long-standing
redistributive projects are abandoned as responsibility of the common state (Fraser 2003,
Alvarez et al. 1998; Dagnino 2003a: 217). This model would reduce citizenship to its most
individualistic and liberal conception while, at the same time, making profitable use of the
notion of civil society and state partnership as an effective rhetoric of inclusion, collective
power and control, a counter-hegemony can also be developed, generating new meanings and orientations for
action (Ibid: 40), as hegemony is always a process and needs to be continuously renovated.