Indignation is Only the First Step: A Discussion with Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman

Zoltán Glück

In 2011, the biggest student mobilization in recent Chilean history began to pick up steam. Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman were among the movement’s most visible participants. They reflect on strategies, tactics, organizing structures, and lessons learned from years of education activism.

Interview by Zoltán Glück. Translation by Mary Kate Donnovan

Camila Vallejo and Noam Titelman were two of the most prominent leaders of the wave of Chilean student mobilizations that began in 2011. This interview was conducted in October 2012 when Vallejo and Titelman were invited to Washington, DC to accept the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.  During this trip they visited New York City to meet student organizers from the US and Quebec and give a talk at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center where student leaders from across the Americas discussed strategies, tactics, organizing structures, and lessons learned from the past year of intense student mobilization. It was in this context that this interview was conducted.

Since the time of this interview a number of new developments have taken place in the Chilean student movement. In 2013 Vallejo and three other student leaders were elected to the Chilean Parliament and have begun trying to reform the educational system from within the channels of established power, while the leadership roles in the main student organization have passed to a younger generation of activists who are more skeptical about such parliamentary politics. This shift in Chilean student politics is captured perhaps most emblematically with the election of an anarchist, Melissa Sepulveda, as president of Federacion de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile (FECH), a post formerly held by Vallejo, an outspoken member of the Communist Youth. The necessity of “taking power” is a topic that emerges towards the end of this interview, and is a theme that Vallejo has not been shy to speak publically about elsewhere. As if foreshadowing her own bid for power within Chilean parliament, she states clearly her own understanding of the relationship between social movements and political 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.”

We are including this interview in our collection of writings about student movements as it marks an important moment in the recent history of international student mobilizations. It grapples both with broad themes of neoliberalism, representative democracy, and horizontalism, as well as practical nuts and bolts organizing questions, such as the structures of decision-making within the Chilean movement. The interview also captures Vallejo and Titelman at an interesting and transitional moment in their own political trajectories.

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Zoltán Glück: What is the relationship between the student movement and broader expressions of resistance against neoliberalism in Chile. Would you say that the student movement in Chile is 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 4,500 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: 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 of 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.

Noam Titleman: 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 in 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—it’s called “los bases.Los bases literally means “the bases,” the foundations, or the “grassroots.” 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 “roundtable” composed of about ten presidents of different federations and around which everyone is supposed to be equal. Those ten presidents are, for example, the representatives that would go to a meeting with the government and when the government puts forward  a proposition it would be these ten that would have to take the proposition back to the rest of the student federations, which in total could be about forty 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 of 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 make 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: 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 counteract this idea of education-as-commodity and build 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 workers’ strike where it’s 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, 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, it’s 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.