Historians have rightly focused on the role of the CIA and the Chilean military in the ouster of Salvador Allende. However, the Chilean middle class holds the key to a better understanding of the coup and its aftermath.

Salvador Allende shaking hands with people in the street, 1972. (Brazilian National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Chilean elites, right-wing parties, and the military orchestrated the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s socialist government in 1973; the middle class, banging pots and waving handkerchiefs in protest throughout the Popular Unity years, looked on approvingly.

Patricio Guzmán’s classic film trilogy The Battle of Chile cemented that image with its first installment, Insurrection of the Bourgeoise, a stirring portrait of middle-class revolt goaded on by foreign conspiracy. There, scenes of middle-class street protests are juxtaposed with opposition-party sabotage and external economic blockades — the latter being decisive in the coup.

The Chilean middle class is usually cast in these depictions as contributing to the overthrow of the Popular Unity government. It is much more rarely seen as leading the movement for Allende’s violent ouster.

Part of that vision is historically informed: the middle class, which celebrated the coup led by Augusto Pinochet, would eventually become a victim of the regime’s neoliberal austerity measures. But downplaying the role of the middle also conceals its strength in the decades leading up to September 11, 1973. In fact, as Marcelo Casals argues in his recent book, Counterrevolution, Collaborationism and Protest: The Chilean Middle Class and the Military Dictatorship, it’s impossible to understand the lasting power of the Pinochet dictatorship without studying the history of Chile’s middle class.

This year, the fiftieth anniversary of the coup, historians have begun to ask new, sometimes difficult questions about the nature of the Pinochet regime. Nicolas Allen of Jacobin spoke to Casals about one of those: the social group that made the coup possible and then — for a time — provided the government with its base of support.

Nicolas Allen

Many people are aware that the Chilean middle class played some role in the coup against Salvador Allende, but how can a deeper understanding of the middle class shed new light on his ouster and its aftermath?

Marcelo Casals

I should start by defining what I mean by the middle class. Too often, people speak of the middle class as if it were an objective reality: since there are rich and poor people, logically, there should also be a third group in the middle.

In Chile, social organizations identifying as “middle class” began to appear by the mid-twentieth century. These groups spoke on behalf of a new entity, la clase media, and explicitly addressed the state with a set of demands: special laws recognizing the significance of the middle class, favorable public policy, and privileges like higher salaries, tax exemptions, etc. In terms of articulating and achieving their demands, those efforts were very successful, and by the 1970s, merchants, civil servants, and professionals had become quite powerful. They had tremendous resources, social prestige, and, most important of all, they had direct access to political power.

The middle class had tremendous resources and direct access to political power. Allende’s Popular Unity government changed all that.

Allende’s Popular Unity government changed all that. First, it de-emphasized the middle class, putting the material improvements of the working class at the center of its program. Soon thereafter, the channels of negotiation that the middle class had enjoyed with the Chilean state also began to break down. And then, as political polarization deepened and an economic crisis hit Chile, middle-class groups began to feel that the social hierarchy that had sustained their privileges was in jeopardy. What followed were unprecedented middle-class street mobilizations against the Allende government.

That story — of how the Chilean middle class led a mass counterrevolutionary movement against the Popular Unity government — is often overshadowed by conventional narratives focusing on right-wing political parties, US imperialism, and large capitalist interests. Of course, those were very real forces. However, the Chilean middle class was much more organized, mobilized, and radicalized than it is given credit for, pursuing a clearly defined anti-communist and anti-Marxist agenda.

By the same token, the middle class was not immune to the enormous transformations in culture, economics, and politics that came with the military dictatorship. Starting with the neoliberal economic reforms that began in the mid-1970s, middle-class identity became progressively less defined by its relation to the state and more by its place within a market economy. Consumption levels rather than political favors came to be defining experiences of the middle class. In other words, culturally speaking, this was a different middle class from the one just before the coup.

The Chilean middle class was much more organized, mobilized, and radicalized than it is given credit for, pursuing a clearly defined anti-Communist and anti-Marxist agenda.

Middle-class support for the dictatorship would remain strong for years. However, by the early 1980s, particularly after the economic crisis of 1982, the middle class became one of the leading voices in the opposition to the dictatorship. In its members’ minds, the new democratic government would preserve and even enhance middle-class living standards and restore their political power, which had ebbed during the dictatorship.

Again, it took time for the middle class to join the opposition — and it only did so as the exercise of state power came to be seen as excessively arbitrary. State repression was increasingly viewed through the lens of human rights — a view that made repression seem morally reprehensible. That was a very different understanding from the repression at the beginning of the dictatorship, which the middle class saw as a form of necessary punishment to be meted out to the unduly influential popular sectors.

Nicolas Allen

How is that account different from the one made famous by Argentine scholar Guillermo O’Donnell? O’Donnell argued that, by the ’60s, as the Latin American middle classes grew frustrated with lagging modernization and disenchanted with liberal democratic politics, they embraced authoritarian solutions to capitalist development.

Marcelo Casals

The more sociological readings like O’Donnell’s, in which accumulated middle-class frustrations lead to authoritarianism, have much to recommend. The problem is that they take a snapshot of the middle class at a certain period and then extend that forward and backward in time. In that version, the middle class is usually seen as a mere appendage of the oligarchy, or as a fearful, cowering class with a weak commitment to democracy. Those characterizations were accurate at certain moments, but I would argue that the middle class and the dictatorship are not a static, monolithic bloc.

O’Donnell himself actually came around to a more dynamic view of the dictatorship later in life. By the end of the ’80s, O’Donnell was saying: “Ok, we have a good structural understanding of these authoritarian, bureaucratic regimes, but we are missing a sense of the social behaviors that supported these regimes.” That part is still missing: the social basis for the Chilean dictatorship is an entire area of research that still hasn’t received enough attention.

Nicolas Allen

Taking the long view, though, it seems predictable that the Popular Unity government would inspire such a vehement reaction: the middle class had spent decades building itself up as the “legitimate” voice for Chilean public opinion, and to have that taken away would inspire intense resentment.

Marcelo Casals

That evolution can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century, when state bureaucracy, public employment, and other processes of modernization combined with urbanization in the capital city of Santiago. But it was only by the 1930s that a more systematic idea of the middle class became common, referring to a social universe distinct from Chile’s oligarchic sectors but also separate from the popular sectors [i.e. the working and lower classes] of the cities. That middle sector was heavily linked with an expanding state bureaucracy and state services, but also with growing commerce in the urban areas.

It was only by the 1930s that a more systematic idea of the middle class became common, referring to a social universe distinct from Chile’s oligarchic sectors but also separate from the popular sectors.

From the ’30s onward, a cluster of professional groups began to organize themselves into associations. Those institutions, colleges, and associations were created by the state, and each one was responsible for overseeing a certain professional area in the name of the state. For example, the Bar Association was in charge of the administration of justice. That same organizational logic was then applied to other professional sectors: merchants, public employees, and private employees all had their own organizations.

That was a pilot run of sorts for an emerging middle-class identity. It took place against the historical backdrop of a strongly reformist, anti-oligarchic national culture already visible under the government of Arturo Alessandri, in the early 1920s. That crisis-ridden period, in which the export-dependent economy contracted sharply, led to the Popular Front government in the late 1930s, which was headed by the Radical Party.

The Radical Party reflected the reformist impetus of sectors that, as they increasingly began to identify as middle class, also started to carve out a separate political space for themselves. The social distinction conferred on that new class was reflected in a 1937 law establishing a minimum-wage requirement tied to inflation that, crucially, only applied to middle-class groups. Meanwhile, the working class would still have to adjust its wages and offset the effects of inflation as it always had: through strikes, protests, and collective bargaining.

The period from the ’30s to the ’70s saw even sharper social distinctions emerge, reflecting a stronger middle-class identity. One example of that was the legal differentiation between “employees” and “workers,” where employees enjoyed certain state benefits that workers did not. Meanwhile, up to the 1970s, class language became ubiquitous in Chile; even if it was mostly used by Marxists to refer to the working class, that class language made it relatively natural to imagine the middle sectors as a distinct “class.”

1920s portrait of Chilean president Arturo Alessandri Palma. (Wikimedia Commons)

What entered into crisis with Allende’s victory was the institutional design that gave the middle-class sectors their organizational coherence and access to state resources. An irony not lost on most people is that Allende was a part of that middle class. Famously, he was a Freemason, an institution strongly identified with the anti-oligarchic ideology of the Chilean middle class. He was also a founding member and first president of the Medical College, one of the leading professional organizations of its time. He was also a member of the Socialist Party, which, different from the “workerist” orientation of the Communist Party, had a strong presence among the middle class. Allende belonged to that milieu and believed that the success of the “Chilean road to socialism” depended on bringing the middle class on board with his project.

This is all to say that, had it not been for growing political polarization and economic crisis, Allende could have possibly found a way to make overtures to the middle class. But that didn’t happen; instead, the middle classes turned against the Popular Unity government in a shockingly rapid and radical manner.

The way they turned on Allende is a corrective to the idea that the middle class was the victim of creeping political manipulation by right-wing parties or the CIA. That kind of interference existed, but one of the most striking things I found in my research is how the organized middle class very quickly, and on its own initiative, formed a majority opinion in favor of pursuing radical counterrevolutionary measures.

Nicolas Allen

Did the dictatorship restore the privileges the middle class lost under the Popular Unity government? Why did it eventually turn against the Pinochet government?

Marcelo Casals

Initially, the dictatorship responded directly to middle-class calls for the “normalization” and restoration of social hierarchies. It’s important to remember that, before the implementation of neoliberalism, the dictatorship was centrally interested in winding back the clock to before the victory of the Popular Unity government. So, during the first years of the dictatorship, the middle class held more political power and had better conditions than ever before. Political parties and other institutional intermediaries were no longer in their way — they could go directly to the military junta to get what they wanted. And that is largely why the middle class either tacitly tolerated or directly collaborated with state repression.

That started to collapse with the economic reforms that would later come to be known as neoliberalism. Starting in 1975, the government’s “shock policy” laid out a battery of measures to combat spiraling inflation, including a sharp contraction of fiscal expenditure and, eventually, of the entire state apparatus itself. Among those most directly affected by that contraction were the middle-class groups who had previously enjoyed the largesse of state resources and power.

Salvador Allende and other officials at the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile. (Wikimedia Commons)

Those neoliberal economic reforms obviously came from on high, from the so-called Chicago Boys. Presented as objective scientific policies, the implication was that they were not open for negotiation — which was precisely how the middle class had come to enjoy its privilege and influence.

By the end of the ’70s, the country’s labor legislation, health system, and social security system had been radically transformed and privatized to the detriment of the middle class. Even still, for a time, the counterrevolutionary impulse remained strong with the middle class and guaranteed its continued support for the dictatorship. This was an odd time in the history of the dictatorship, when not only the middle class but also parts of the regime itself —fractions of the Armed Forces and the nationalist right-wing, for example — had misgivings about the radical monetarism of the Chicago Boys. Still, there was no political rupture provided the strongly anti-communist and anti-Marxist discourse kept alive the idea of a struggle against the memory of the Popular Unity years.

However, growing awareness of the regime’s brutality eventually affected parts of the middle class. This was especially true of those connected to the Catholic Church, which was practically the only institution denouncing the violation of human rights. Those two elements — neoliberal economic reforms and a growing moral opposition to state repression — started to erode the military dictatorship’s legitimacy. Finally, the economic crisis of ’82 and ’83 began to destroy the remaining ballast of the regime, which had been the enhanced consumption powers of the middle class as a result of neoliberal reforms.

By the end of the ’70s, the country’s labor legislation, health system, and social security system had been radically transformed and privatized to the detriment of the middle class.

The economy had been radically liberalized, allowing for a flood of imported household appliances and other things that Chileans had never had access to. The first credit cards also appeared during that time, and shopping malls were inaugurated in Santiago, becoming an important symbol of the kind of consumer modernity promoted by the dictatorship. However, the lure of consumerism, which had shored up the support of the organized middle class, began to collapse with the economic crisis.

A wave of national protests began the following year, in 1983. Those were relatively spontaneous protests against the dictatorship in an acute economic crisis. And, as dissatisfaction with the new neoliberal model began to grow, the organized middle class comprised a significant layer of the yearlong protest movement.

Nicolas Allen

Is it possible to trace the afterlife of that middle class–junta alliance into the postdictatorship period? What was the role of the middle class during the return to democracy?

Marcelo Casals

The dictatorship brought several lasting consequences for the middle class. The first was that middle-class organizational power and social significance plummeted. It had already greatly diminished during the dictatorship. For example, in 1981, the professional associations that gave the middle class its organizational strength were downgraded to trade associations, meaning it was no longer obligatory to be an associated member to practice the profession. In effect, professional organizations had lost the capacity to designate themselves as the authentic representatives of the middle class.

Furthermore, during the transition years, the Concertación governments were deeply concerned with achieving governability and made great efforts to deactivate the very same social mobilization that had given the middle class a sense of national leadership. Foremost among the concerns of the Concertación was to guarantee the stability of the new political system and avoid the latent threat of any authoritarian backsliding. The dictatorship had negotiated its way out of government and kept its grip on a lot of state power, which meant that, at the beginning of the ’90s, there was a perceived danger that the dictatorship could return.

Large parts of the middle class embraced the spirit of political prudence and accepted that, for the dictatorship to remain safely in the past, the fight against the dictatorship had to be declared done and over. In practice, though, that meant that the middle class, which had been the protagonist first of the struggle against the Popular Unity government and later in the opposition to the dictatorship, would no longer play a prominent leadership role in public life.

Nicolas Allen

Is the Chilean middle class still a relevant political agent today? Or is it too fragmented to be setting the public agenda? Is the middle class behind the rightward shift seen in recent elections?

Marcelo Casals

If somebody wanted to study today’s Chilean middle class, they wouldn’t find significant organizational expression like the one I focused on for the twentieth century. It’s difficult to know what groups make up the middle class or to what extent a middle-class social identity still carries weight. Today, the language of class itself is much less powerful than in other times in the twentieth century and has been eclipsed by other kinds of social antagonisms.

However, I do think that some part of the 2019 social uprising was an expression of middle-class demands. If you look at the way those demands were articulated and the specific areas of Santiago that saw the largest concentration of protests, there’s a case to be made that those were middle-class protests. There was a strong emphasis on decommodifying social rights, especially in education, health, and the pension system, and those types of demands are reminiscent of the middle-class opposition to the dictatorship.

Today, the language of class itself is much less powerful than in other times in the twentieth century.

Even before the social outburst, Chile had a strong student movement whose main demand was the promise of social advancement through higher education. Families had taken on debt so that their children could access higher education and achieve some relative improvement in their material conditions. That meritocratic promise of improvement through individual effort — a strong middle-class ideology — has mostly fallen apart.

The same can be said of the pension system. Chile’s pension system was marketed in the 1980s as a reward for individual effort. That system of “individual capitalization,” as it’s called in Chile, allows one to have a retirement fund in proportion to the individual savings made over one’s working life. However, it became evident to those who lived their entire working life under this system that the pensions were insufficient. A similar story could be told about the Chilean health care system.

I wouldn’t want to reduce the 2019 social uprising to a middle-class phenomenon. But it seems to me that there are some elements of continuity or echo with the middle-class demands that arose during the dictatorship in response to neoliberalism, especially those in the late period and during the years of the democratic transition. Especially during the first transition years, the demand for the decommodification of social rights and a strong antiestablishment attitude were hallmarks of the middle class.

However, I would not say that the current Thermidorian moment [i.e. right-wing reaction] is due to the middle class. If, for example, we look at the election results of the Constitutional Council from a few months ago, which gave a large majority to the ultraright, we find support from all social sectors in all the country’s communes and regions. It is impossible to establish any distinction there and say that the middle class is driving a rightward shift in Chilean politics today.

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