'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Film Notes: The Battle of Chile 

Just before leaving on vacation, I had the opportunity to see Patricio Guzman's epic documentary, The Battle of Chile, at the Pacific Film Archive. In this approximately four and a half hour film, released in 1975, he profiles the intensifying class conflict during the presidency of Salvador Allende that culminated in the 1973 coup. Fortunately, for those of you who are interested, the film is available on DVD.

Guzman lived in Chile during the events in question, and filmed them, and the public response to them, as they happened. His emphasis is upon the transformation of society by collective, popular action, and the challenges associated with such an endeavor, as most concisely expressed in a famous sentence from Allende's last speech during the coup: History is ours and the people make it. Within the polarized, politically charged climate of Chile in the early 1970s, such a seemingly homogenized statement of political rhetoric constituted a commitment of perpetual resistance. Guzman's effort to smuggle the footage for the film out of Chile to Sweden so that it could be edited and publicly released was one form of such resistance.

For it was within Chile that the neoliberals entered their Garden of Eden, implementing policies of extreme austerity and privatization by means of a destabilization of society orchestrated by the CIA, ITT and the AFL-CIO and the subsequent authoritarian social controls associated with a military regime. It was here that Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, with their purported concern about ensuring that people are free to choose, persuaded General Augusto Pinochet to radically implement capital friendly, market based policies against the will of much of the Chilean populace. In an instance of dialectical irony, the truck drivers, copper workers and middle class people that served in the vanguard of opposition to Allende found themselves among the victims of Pinochet's policies. People around the world have been fighting the export of these neoliberal policies with varying degrees of success ever since. Guzman conveys the ferocity of the initial struggle within Chile as a sort of fatalistic, documentary noir.

Of course, this is a well known history, a tale told many times, most recently by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. Lesser known is the provocation for the coup, the vision of society that so threatened the middle class, the military and economic elites, including investors thousands of miles away in the United States. In his documentary, Guzman focuses upon the people and social movements that sought to socialize Chilean society and the opposition to them. As Part 1 began, I was overwhelmed by the emotional political participation of people within Chilean society. From the socially alienated, politically disengaged world of 2011, I almost thought that The Battle of Chile was a newly created film genre, the political science fiction period film. One cannot dismiss this by claiming that Guzman was speaking solely with politically engaged people, as he conducted many of his interviews with people from all walks of life, especially those involved in industrial production. He is seemingly everywhere, filming mass rallies, election campaigns, factory occupations, land seizures and organized campaigns to transport people and supply food during the effort to disrupt the Chilean economy and interviewing the participants.

By doing so, Guzman reveals the collective liberatory possibilities embedded within the emergence of popular power, the fusion of political and economic power within communities, administered through increasingly anti-authoritarian forms of social organization, something that, in a different context, Samuel Huntington alarmingly described as a democratic distemper, a situation whereby people demanded more of the government while becoming increasingly resistant to its authority. Within Chile, democratic distemper took the specific form of workers, who had been exploited by their employers and investors for decades while living in terrible conditions, responding to the election of Allende by accelerating the pace of the nationalization of some sectors of the economy by taking over taking over factories themselves. Meanwhile, peasants carried out their own land reform independent of the government by taking land for themselves. Parallel to these efforts, people mobilized to distribute necessities, such as food, during times of scarcity, and provide transportation during CIA financed strikes by transport workers, on a more egalitarian, socially conscious basis. Such actions, combined with the alliance by local economic elites and the United States to make the daily lives of Chileans more and more chaotic and difficult, shattered the effort of Allende to administer a peaceful path to socialism by taking control of the commanding heights of the economy for the benefit of middle and lower class Chileans.

The argument on the left as to the whether such actions facilitated the coup remains, as near as I can tell, unresolved. My impression, after watching the film, is that Guzman sided with those who believe that Allende should have more forcefully embraced the seizure of economic power by workers and peasants within their communities and the creation of local institutions to administer them. Of course, I can't say whether the socialist experiment in Chile would have survived if Allende, and the coalition of left political parties in support of him, had decided to do so, but I can say with more confidence that this democratization of the economy must have been the most frightening form of democratic distemper that imperialists like Huntington could imagine. The coup was, in essence, the Huntington solution to this peril, the reassertion of hierarchical political power and the cultivation of political apathy. In Chile, both were violently enforced. If private property and the hegemony of capital are to be preserved, there are potentially desirable limits to the indefinite extension of political democracy. One suspects that Pinochet was more interested in the social dimension of the policies of the Chicago School, the potential for eliminating possible sources of collective resistance through atomization, than he was in its economic theory, which ultimately, within less than 20 years, resulted in such a severe economic crisis than he was forced from power.

But Guzman also has a clear eye for the internal problems associated with economic democratization. For example, such a process makes great demands of the populace. In one telling sequence, he films a meeting where a cadre attempts to persuade a group of workers that they need to proceed carefully because they work in a plant owned by a Swiss company. Switzerland, he earnestly explains to them, is a member of the Club of Paris, and the Club makes important decisions related to the Chilean foreign debt. Needless to say, they are not convinced, with one person telling the cadre that the workers in the plant will not understand it, that he needs to address issues of importance to them. Guzman had a great insight here, one that can be misunderstood. It is not so much that the workers were too self-centered or ignorant to engage with what the apparently better educated, more articulate cadre had to say. Instead, he contrasts the self-confidence of the workers, and a perspective based upon experience, with the practical diffidence of the cadre derived from abstract knowledge, all manifestations of the difficulty in communication that they must overcome. In this, Guzman echoes Godard, without losing his optimism. Hidden within this nascent collective discourse is the sinister allure of leisure, one of the most significant creations of capitalism in the last 100 years. Working your shift, participating in the distribution of food during your off days and going to meetings at night is emotionally and physically exhausting. Better to leave the decisions and the provision of services to others and watch television.

Neoliberalism, leisure and their accompanying disassembly of collective forms of social organization, have come at a high cost. This is one of the themes that has been engrafted onto The Battle of Chile with the passage of time. Mass mobilization against the brutalities of global capitalism are no longer possible, and it is absurd to believe that it can peaceably tamed through the electoral process, as was attempted in Chile, with the possible exception of South America. Hence, they have been replaced by what is commonly called terrorism. In Italy, Germany and the United States, the process was surprisingly rapid, with mass protest movements fragmenting into covert, small group violence within about 10 years. None of them sparked resistance sufficient to threaten the established order, and, now, decades later, hostility to capitalist excess in all three places is primarily expressed through xenophobia. Most of the participants ended up isolated from the marginalized people in society that motivated them. Meanwhile, with the developmental aspirations of the lesser developed world aborted, such violence has persisted, but it has not politically inspired the millions of wageless people who live in it. So far, as noted, it is only in South America where the residue of the Chilean experience still resonates, as described by Ben Dangl, but the achievements to date have been of a mild, Keynesian nature. One of the forgotten aspects of the coup against Allende is that it signaled the beginning of a coordinated, attempted extermination of the left throughout the southern cone with assistance of the CIA, a campaign known as Operation Condor. At minimum, it has been estimated that the governments of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Uruguay killed 60,000 people and incarcerated 400,000 more.

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