Author:Avigur-Eshel, Amit


Those who analyze the relationship between economic liberalization and social mobilization in Latin America commonly assert that neoliberal reforms are the reasons for protests. Indigenous people, unemployed workers, workers in the informal sector, public-sector employees, and others have mobilized against neoliberalization because of its adverse effects on their well-being, life chances, economic security, citizenship rights, and so forth. (1) Democratization that coincided with neoliberalization in the 1980s in various Latin American countries is an important factor in this regard because it opened spaces for popular association and mobilization and made repression by state agents more costly. (2)

For several reasons, the grievances that motivated student-led protests in Chile in 2011, which focused on issues related to higher education (e.g., student indebtedness, the structure of the higher education system), cannot be explained by this framework. First, there is a 30-year time gap between the onset of market reforms in Chiles higher education system and the protests. (3) The transition to democracy also does not provide a good explanation, since democratization in Chile took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although it was by no means completed during this time period since "authoritarian enclaves" remained, public spaces were freely available for social mobilization by the mid-1990s and perhaps earlier. (4) Second, most of the protesters were primarily those who had already joined the liberalized system--that is, enrolled into the higher education system--rather than those who had been excluded. Ever-larger numbers of young people had been enrolling in colleges, universities, and institutes every year before 2011. I argue that, rather than the initiation of neoliberal reforms, grievances in this case originated primarily from neoliberal promises--political and discursive constructs designed to shape popular expectations about "right" and rewarding behavior in an already-liberalized economy.

I rely on the fictional expectations framework recently developed in economic sociology to define the concept of promises. (5) According to this framework, an actor's expectations derive from mental representations of imagined futures rather than from rational calculations. (6) These representations are shaped by various social and cultural factors but also by conscious actions taken by other agents. In applying this framework to sociopolitical analysis, I define promises as the messages that certain actors disseminate in the context of unequal social relations that are intended to shape other actors' expectations in a particular social context. In other words, more powerful actors make promises as a way of shaping less powerful actors' understanding of the social "game" and right and rewarding behavior in the context of that game.

Research on the origins of the 2011 protests in Chile has commonly used social movement theory to identify push and pull factors. However, this analysis has not accounted for the impressive scope of these protests. Student unions were the main pull factor. Their organizational capacities, their ability to formulate demands, their learning from the experience of the 2006 movement of secondary school students, and the charismatic student leaders who criticized the neoliberalization of the higher education system were all crucial for the creation of a social movement that occupied the Chilean public sphere for months.7 The push factors were essentially material: the expansion of the higher education system; the level of debt students and their families, especially from those from the lower and lower-middle strata, had accumulated; and the fact that the higher education system reproduced existing socioeconomic inequalities. (8)

These push factors were indeed crucial for the eruption of protest and for its scope, but how did these factors arise in the first place? In other words, why were so many young Chileans drawn into the higher education system and why were they so frustrated by the difficulties they encountered? These cannot be understood without taking neoliberal promises into account. These promises, which political and educational actors disseminated throughout Chilean society during the years that immediately preceded the protests, portrayed the attainment of education, particularly higher education, as the main route to social mobility and equality of opportunity in the neoliberalized economy. After sweeping neoliberal reforms during the Pinochet era that weakened or destroyed countermarket arrangements (e.g., unions, minimum wage) and after social processes that were triggered in part by policies of the Concertacion governments (poverty reduction, rise in attendance in secondary education), these promises appeared reasonable for individuals who aspired to upward mobility and feared the possibility of downward mobility.9 However, before the 2011 protests, a gap had evolved between these promises and the ability of students to realize them through the higher education system, which was stratified, expensive, and mostly privatized. (10)

Hence, the conditions for protest were in place when masses of young Chileans embraced neoliberal promises about higher education. Whether these young people were critical of economic liberalization or had great faith in the free market was secondary to the grim reality they faced when they discovered that their route to social mobility in the neoliberal context was essentially blocked. Student leaders used promises strategically and critically in their framing of the student-led movement in order to draw public support.


The protests were triggered by the election of Sebastian Pinera in late 2009 (in office as of March 2010). Pinera, the first right-wing president since Chile returned to democracy, appointed a prominent supporter of the dictatorship as education minister. He also announced that 2011 was to be the year of higher education and that he would deliver his annual presidential speech on May 21. The Confederation of Students of Chile (Confederation de Estudiantes de Chile; CONFECH), an umbrella group of student unions from the "traditional" universities, initiated the first protest event in Santiago on April 28. They followed this with a national protest on May 12. Thirty-four similar events took place after these rallies. Student unions from private universities and other civil society organizations, primarily from the education sector, soon joined CONFECH in these protests. (The student unions from private universities also joined CONFECH.) (11) The protests, which spread to all parts of the country, peaked in August, when close to a million people were in the streets. That month, a poll found that four-fifths of Chileans supported the movement. (12)

The protesters' demands initially focused on the quality of higher education, student indebtedness, the states role in higher education, illegal profit-making by private institutions, and the demand for student participation in decisionmaking. In late July, the leaders of the movement began to demand free and equal state-funded higher education. (13)

The governments response developed from virtual dismissal during the first weeks of protest to concern when its popularity rates began to fall. Attempts to repress protesters were accompanied by offers to make changes in how higher education was financed, most importantly in the main financing system, Credito con Aval del Estado (State-Guaranteed Loan; CAE). (14) As these changes did not make any structural changes in the system, student leaders rejected them. By November, the protests were fewer and smaller until they stopped altogether and the debate was gradually confined to the political elite in governmental ministries and the national congress. (15)


I draw upon Jens Beckert's theoretical work on fictional expectations, which argues that agents' decisions are not based on rational expectations since they lack information and the future is uncertain. (16) Expectations are fictional in the sense that they are "pretended representations of a future state of affairs." (17) Expectations are a tool for making decisions in the present despite the uncertainty of the future.

One of the sources of such expectations is found in economic theories that "provide accounts of cause-effect relations, about the effects of decisions on future development, and about the behavior of economic systems." (18) In other words, economic theories present themselves as having knowledge of the rules of an economic game. They can arguably predict the results of that game and clarify the otherwise uncertain future. According to these theories, the results they predict will happen only if agents follow the rules of that game.

Beckert introduces the concept of management of expectations: attempts of some actors to influence the expectations of others. For Beckert, management of expectations is mostly carried out in a context of horizontal relations among a rather limited number of economic agents, ideally entrepreneurs. However, this concept can also be applied in contexts where relations are vertical and include a large number of actors. Applying the concept in these contexts brings to the fore the political dimensions of setting fictional expectations. I use the term promises to denote such relations. (19) While this term retains the meaning of fictional expectations, it also conveys the idea of two unequal sides: disseminators and recipients. Inequality emanates from the ability of the former to convey messages to a wide audience of recipients who do not have similar abilities. Disseminators use promises in their attempts to construct the understanding of recipients about how to play an economic game in a particular economic context.20 The essence of promises is that following the rules of that game...

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