Change and Purpose

Chile: Notes from a Revolt

If it were true that our belief in “looking out for one another” were actually true, we would not be living in a society that has become for all intents and purposes the society of the 1%.

The attached article by Ariel Dorfman hit me very hard and I suspect it will have the same impact on any of us who wake up every day and think about social change. He writes about the long arc of Chilean history, a history not that dissimilar to that of our own nation:  a land of extreme beauty, rich mineral wealth, created through the process of revolt and revolution against foreign control.  In its nation-building, and its high-minded ideals, its prosperity was built on the destruction of its indigenous people  and the private exploitation of its natural resources.  Not unlike our nation, the process of nation building has been highly unequal from its inception and consistently exploitative of its natural resources and its people.

Worse, our nation built so much of its wealth on slavery, and wave after wave of exploitation of labor who were either brought to the nation to work on railroads, farms, and factories, or immigrated to the nation to do the same.  We’ve had a brief period of leveling of wealth and opportunity (1946-1973), but those days are long gone.

There is no getting around that we live in the 1% society  where most everyone struggles with the basics of housing, health, education, valued work, retirement, child and elder care, let alone time for rest, relaxation, and leisure.


I recently finished Isabel Allende’s most recent book, A Long Petal of the Sea.

Though I am busy with work and family, I  was drawn to it so deeply, that I read the book in two days.  The book races along from 1931 in Spain to and through the 1973 coup in Chile and up to the time of the end of the Pinochet dictatorship.  It races through  with the players in the story, beautiful, courageous, and very very human characters who luckily escaped to Chile from the forces of fascism and Franco in 1939-1940 Spain, only to live through the terror of the Chilean coup.  It is a story of courage and love in which that courage and love are tested and nearly destroyed by the social convulsions of the 20th century which reflect class conflict and responses to it from Left and Right.

We tend not to think of Chile very much, and why should we?

Because when we speak of change in our society, we must not continue as though we are separate from the rest of the world, let alone so much of the world in which our nation has had a direct hand in stopping social change. It was the Nixon administration, in our name,  which helped plot and execute the coup which destroyed Chilean democracy in the name of stopping socialism.  Our nation did the same all over the world after World War II in (and this is only a partial list), Greece, Lebanon, Iran, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Congo.

Today in Chile, there is a growing movement for a new Constitution.  Mr. Dorfman reports in the attached article that sentiment in support of a new Constitution is polling at 70%.  Young people are at the forefront.  Protests have been going on for over a year, many violent and seemingly anarchic.  Nonetheless, the threat to the established order there has hit a high peak of support for a new way, a new order.

We here in the U.S. founded our nation with a Declaration of Independence, a revolutionary war,  and a Constitution some 240 years ago.  In that time, the call for revolt and revolution mixed together with calls for human equality and a government by, for, and of the people created what has come to be known as republican government and democracy.

This system is not working.

We are living in an election year in which the Democratic Party is debating fundamental social change openly:  not whether, but how to achieve universal health care, more affordable and open access to education at all levels, support for affordable housing, large increases in the minimum wage, paid family leave, free child care, secure retirement, and a commitment to end fossil fuel reliance and build a sustainable infrastructure to achieve safeguards for our environment.  The younger voters are for Bernie Sanders because they see in his campaign the demand that all of these changes take place as soon as possible.  The older generation is  supporting alternatives to Sanders on the grounds that we must ensure a return to normalcy (which means ridding ourselves of Donald Trump) and a so-called more practical and incremental approach to social change.

The younger and older voters have more in common than they like to admit.

Our problem is bigger.

In my view, our problem is that our current political and constitutional system limits our ability to debate and develop a path forward that can actually succeed at undoing an entire history of inequality, exploitation of labor and natural resources, along with the shame of the destruction of our native people, and the inhumane treatment of our African American sisters and brothers.  Our history is a history of exploitation of all labor, a divide and conquer culture that has made each and every generation of foreign and domestic born workers feel like they do not belong.  We live in a society  where to live as a worker is to live by definition as a second class person.  This is the “hidden injury of class” that underlies so much of what defines our culture and our norms. We must come to grips with these realities, go through a period of reconciliation with the truth, which is the only way we can begin to be a community.

And what would a new Constitution look like?

I have mixed views on the Electoral College, the way we choose Senators, the power of the Executive Branch, and the role and composition of the Judiciary.  I think these Constitutional issues should be resolved, but I see them as symptomatic or matters of form.   First, we must come to grips with function or purpose of Constitutional reform.

We don’t have a lot of successful models to point to.  I imagine most everyone would agree that we do not want authoritarian rule.  More complex is how we find the path to empowerment of voice which creates a path to solving, actually solving our social inequality when it comes to the needs of our communities and a sense of security for daily living.

There is a model that has succeeded and can continue to succeed if actually implemented:  it is the model of Social Dialogue in which all stakeholders in society see themselves as Social Partners.  It is the basis of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

It is not a utopian idea.  It is a practical system of continuous engagement of stakeholders where power takes a back seat to collaboration.  Indeed the ILO has for many generations flown in the face of our historical paradymes of class struggle and class conflict.  Now that we have lived out the long 20th century from the Dreyfus Affair to the age of rising populism and intense and unprecedented worldwide inequality,  it is time for evidence based, interest based dialogue, the basis of the ILO and Social Dialogue.

Indeed a new Constitution based on partnership and community dialogue can create a social security system that is continuously improved upon by all stakeholders who have a Constitutional  stake in the outcome of achieving social security.

If for example, we decide to do what the evidence tells us to do, which is  to build structural alternatives to fossil fuel energy to drive all  production and consumption,  it could be accomplished  through social dialogue  which places the agreed upon goal as the center of all discussion and action.

If we want to achieve what the evidence tells us to do, which is to  achieve population health, whereby we measure the success of  our health system and health financing by outcomes as opposed to activity, we could achieve affordable, accessible universal healthcare, not by debating whether or not it is a public or a private system, but engaging in social dialogue to actually achieve continuous improvement in population health. Prevention of disease and injury is the ONLY way to achieve population health.  If we accept that as the problem to solve, social dialogue can create the means to achieve it.

Evidence need not be politicized or a source of power.  Social Dialogue  requires that evidence be objective and tested.  Social Dialogue requires that the voices of participants be blame-free and safe to express ideas, so long as the ideas are evidence based.  We know from plenty of practice in Social Dialogue that the interests of participants  do overlap, and that it is in the overlap of interests we find the path to solutions.  If interests are mutual and we have a constitutional system designed to achieve solutions to problems of mutual interest, solutions can be achieved.

I said to a friend of mine yesterday that I will not be happy until one day the following happens:  that I  walk up to a healthcare worker seated behind her computer, and ask what is her job, and her answer is not only “unit clerk”, but her answer is “to serve the population”.

We cannot expect that answer without constitutional guarantees of her job being secure and well paid, with a the full range of social benefits, including a secure retirement, and access to affordable and high quality education, housing, paid leave, and a voice at work.  That voice at work means  to be a full participant on how to continuously improve the service that she and her colleagues provide in oder to achieve that highest quality  of outcomes for the population that she serves.

We must re-define what it means to be part of a union, too, where voice is empowered as part of a community of stakeholders.

I have yet to meet a healthcare worker who does not want to serve the population.  The problem is that there are many barriers that need to be removed to do so.  She only can, if she, as a stakeholder is part of the continuous Social Dialogue that collectively confronts problems and barriers to  achieving population health.

The same principles ought to be applied to all sectors of society.  We need Constitutional reform to achieve it.

The Chilean people, a people with a similar history to our own are moving in this  direction.  That “Long Petal of  the Sea” has been through a lot over the past 200+ years, and the young people there are calling for a break from a history of incremental change led by “centrists”, never a return to authoritarian rule, and a future based on the achievement of security for all.

Social Dialogue ought to be at the heart of Constitutional change.  It is something all people are capable of.  It requires learning, it requires mutual respect, it requires patience, it requires a community in partnership to and with itself.



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