Chile an example of disempowerment

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Chile an example of disempowerment ...

    Chile: an example of disempowerment?

    Human agency in individual and collective projects of transformation under a neoliberal


    Claudia Robles

    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


    11. Introduction

    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.


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