Round Table Discussion: Atria, Aceituno, and Mönckeberg debate each other on ethics and probity in today’s Chile

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In a conversation that took place at the Casa Central of the Universidad de Chile, on Wednesday, June 7th, the academic María Olivia Mönckeberg, along with Fernando Atria and Roberto Aceituno, took on, each from their own research perspective, the challenge of trying to answer why we have reached such low levels of legitimacy in relation to our institutions, and what are the possible solutions for reversing the overall lack of probity, which makes not just the politicians and leaders of the institutions under investigation uncomfortable, but also the rest of the citizenry.

It is unnecessary to go into great detail about what the opinion polls and the media have already spelled out: the dignity of the institutional structure is on the floor and the general perception is that there is a lack of probity and ethics.  How do you read, from your respective fields of research, the current situation and why do you think we have gotten to this point?

María Olivia Mönckeberg: From the world of investigative journalism, in 2015 I was motivated to delve deeper into the problematic issue of money in politics, of the relationship between members of parliament and political parties and economic groups, and how this relationship was operating.  Basically, this entailed the Penta and Soquimich cases, which were the subject of the book The Fraud Machine, published that same year.  From the perspective of a journalist who was reporting on the economy during the dictatorship, and who had kept an eye on the transition, the magnitude of these cases impressed me quite a lot.  Although I had distrusted the political system beforehand, learning how this was actually operating revealed what I call a “mortgaged democracy”, a democracy mortgaged to the power of money, a democracy where all these things were taking place, and which some would offhandedly call  “shenanigans”, but which are much more than that.

It was quite prevalent in the political campaigns: one would assume that the Penta Group was financing the UDI party, but when the Soquimich case exploded, when Julio Ponce, Pinochet’s ex-son-in-law, financed a broad swath of the political spectrum, including UDI, but also people of the left, socialists, Marco Enríquez, Carlos Ominami, some Christian Democrats, people from Renovación Nacional, it was very surprising.  If there had been a more active journalism during the transition, an investigative journalism, for example, we would have had a better idea of what was happening and could have avoided some of these scandals.

The other thing that is worrying and terrifying is how reluctant political parties are in doing something about the situation.  The extreme case in point is the UDI party, which after the sentencing of the only convicted person in the Penta case, Jovino Novoa, its Supreme Tribunal claimed that this wasn’t very important, since according to their criteria the illicit moneys involved were not destined for personal enrichment, but rather for campaign financing, which is also very doubtful.  That UDI Supreme Tribunal declaration is very shocking.  The other parties have not made similar statements; no convictions have yet to take place.

Dean Aceituno, what, in your opinion, is the general mood of a society when, as professor Mönckeberg points out, the magnitude of the scandal is verified, and still there is a lingering sensation that nobody is taking responsibility?

Roberto Aceituno: I agree completely with what María Olivia was saying.  My area of research has to do with the transformations of subjectivity in relation to socio-cultural transformations, so one of my worries is seeing how, at the level of individuals and relations, changes or transformations take place in what we call the structures of the social pact.  In that context, lack of trust occurs because of a profound weakening of the conditions of the social and cultural structures, and which has as one of its main symptoms a grave deterioration in the relationship between ethics and politics.  I wouldn’t presume that we are dealing only with deterioration or regression in terms of civilized politics or politicians, rather the deterioration of the ethical component of politics itself.  I think that one of the biggest political failures of these recent administrations, and especially the Nueva Mayoría administration, previously the Concertación, had to do with not understanding that the ethical dimension is not just rhetoric, but that it is also a political fact.  The number of opportunities they have had to turn ethical questions into political victories is huge, starting with the much talked about case involving the business dealings of the president’s son: that was the moment when an ethical issue could have been transformed into a political opportunity, and it was lost.

I think that this was not solely a consequence of personal characteristics, but rather of a certain state of affairs where politics becomes merely a game to secure special interests or gain power, in other words, a politics with no cultural substance.  And by transforming politics into that, this evidently generates all of the conditions for private interests to replace public ones.  The law of private interests, which taken to its limit is the law of the perverse, replaces, or takes the place of, the law of the public good.

This becomes evident, for example, in the profound deterioration of political discourse.  If you look at how people talk today you will see that ultimately they can say pretty much anything, contradict themselves in the next sentence, and this has no consequences.  I think that there is an aspect of what we call the crisis of the political that has not been sufficiently studied or analyzed, and that is the deterioration of the role that words play.

Professor Atria, how do you evaluate the situation today, having also been a presidential pre-candidate and therefore part of today’s very disreputable party politics?

Fernando Atria: I find it extremely interesting to listen to you, because you express different visions for a common problem, and this diversity of perspectives enriches the debate, in my opinion.  I think that, in part, this “crisis of confidence” has to do with the kind of politics that we have had in the last 30 years.  I find it extremely interesting that when accusations of various kinds surface, those involved turn to the legality of the acts, since that is very easy, but there is another dimension that gets ignored too quickly.  From the point of view of the public interest, not from an institutional perspective, of course, it is totally irrelevant whether the conduct in question is legal or not, and it is not at all a justification.  There is little distinction made by public opinion, unlike in a courtroom trial, between those who receive undisclosed campaign contributions from SQM, which is legal, according to the legislation, and those who receive illicit contributions using fraudulent invoices.  I’m not criticizing this, nor am I saying that the distinction must be made and that those who act in accordance to the law are totally innocent; what I’m saying is that we are living according to a political standard in which the legality of an act is completely removed from the public’s interest in correcting it.

Those who are accused defend themselves appealing to the legality of their actions, but for those who challenge them, the legality or illegality is fundamentally irrelevant. This was evident as Sebastián Piñera was making the announcement regarding his blind trust, boasting that he was going beyond the law.  I think that all of this points to one of the central characteristics of a certain way of doing politics that for reasons that are perfectly identifiable was set up in order to neutralize political power, so that our institutional structure lacked power.

What are those perfectly identifiable reasons?

Fernando Atria: In the beginning, the objective was to prevent the modification of the neoliberal model, that was announced, explicitly, and the Pinochet opposition during the 1980’s identified it; that’s where the constitutional problem comes from.  But the interesting thing about this, in my opinion, is that this neutralization, which had the explicit goal of protecting the neoliberal model, is translated into a generic neutralization, which implies that there is no political power available to challenge anyone who wields de facto power.  That is the central fact of our political coexistence, and this means that our political coexistence will be structured not by the rules established by the political forces, but by the de facto interests of various kinds.

What is going to happen in the medium and long term, in twenty or thirty years, what kind of life can we lead when there is no political power capable of challenging the powers that be?  The answer is that it will be a way of life that is much more de facto.  For example, I anticipate that the de facto economic power will take control over the political power, not because there are politicians who are corruptible, but rather because it is part of how this is going to evolve as long as there is an absence of political power: the economic de facto powers can only be contained when another power can challenge them; if there is no other power to oppose them, they will not be contained.  One could say that today we are in a special period during which all of the debts that have to be paid are emerging, but this is nothing more than a consequence of decisions made previously.  If, for example, the Armed Forces and Police are left out of democratic control, and if they also administer large quantities of resources, it is reasonable to anticipate that what is going on today will continue to happen.  The army is allocated 10% of what Codelco sells, and was ensured this 10% when copper was worth 90 cents a pound or when it was worth 4.5 dollars a pound.  What is most likely to happen when a group that is not subject to any political regulation controls large quantities of money?  The answer is obvious.  What can we reasonably expect to happen when there is a huge economic power that cannot be controlled, regulated, limited by political power?  Well, what is going to be done with the political power?

I think that it is very important not to treat the current problem as, or reduce it to, an ethical or moral problem, as if it mainly had to do with the unfortunate predicament that those who were elected to congress during this period are morally objectionable.  I believe that there is no reason to think that those who are today referred to as “the politicians” are any different from the rest of us mortals.  The problem is that if you believe that the crux of the issue is the ethical reproach aimed at individual persons, then even though there are so many of them, you overlook the political problem.  I’m not saying that reproaches shouldn’t be made; they should be made, and there will be opportunities for that, of course there will.  But we also have to see that getting to this point has been the result of the normal development of a certain way of doing politics that reflects a system where the institutional power that is produced, the political power, is extremely weak.  The weakness of the political power means that it is open season for de facto power.  And if hunting season is open, it is not very surprising that they have come out to hunt.

And how do we get out of this crisis, considering that according to what Professor Atria has stated, a concrete decision is not enough, and the current scenario is the product of elements that are structural and historical?

María Olivia Mönckeberg: When I use the expression “mortgaged democracy”, in one way or another this coincides with Fernando Atria’s claim that the political power structure, the political class, is, in fact, dominated by another, which is made up of those de facto powers.   And at this moment it appears to me that the main de facto power is the power of money, it is the power of the large economic groups, it is the power of the Luksic family, the Mattes, the Angelinis, Penta, Julio Ponce Lerou and Soquimich, who continue to be powerful; Mr. Paulmann, Mr. Saieh, and all of those who effectively control Chile.

One thing that I find quite troubling is the following: what we should do in the future should be worked out by politicians that have the right qualifications, politicians who are intelligent, who understand what the country needs, politicians who don’t depend on economic donors or on someone’s charity, or on a commitment they make to vote a certain way on a specific law.  It is not easy.  I think that, for starters, the more we know, the more we are informed, the more regulation there is, the better.  Everything that the Public Prosecutor can do, for example, is crucial.  We know that there has been, during all this time, something like “a machine of fraud”, as the prosecutor Carlos Gajardo has said, and there is also a machine to cover up violations or alleged violations, as they often say.  Figures like Eduardo Engel have taken important steps, but a couple of laws is not going to be enough when, one way or another, what we have is a “political class” that is too obedient to money in all of its forms.  I think that Journalism could do a lot if it had the space, a real investigative journalism.  This journalism could detect problems and create spaces for discussion and conversation where individuals, who perhaps are not traditional politicians, can emerge, and guide us towards a better situation, or even radically change it.

When she talks about intelligent politicians, I can’t help thinking about the pre-candidate Manuel José Ossandón and his performance on the Sunday, June 5th edition of the TV program Tolerancia Cero.  Does not having politicians who are well-prepared affect the discussion?

Roberto Aceituno: I think that what you make reference to is not a minor detail, but rather an important aspect of this political crisis.  Just as when morality and politics don’t seem to go together, as some believe, introducing the cultural dimension, even in the more traditional sense of the word, it seems quite unusual.

I wanted to say quickly three things.  One, the obvious paradox that a political crisis can only be solved from within politics.  There is no holy spirit that can come and tell us how to make our politics turn into something else.  It has to come from politics itself, but there is also a second element, which is the most pessimistic element of the current analysis.  Because of the way this situation came about, it is very difficult to change the regime of common sense that is operating.  Common sense, in the way it usually worked, has changed into something else, and we name things in a very weird way, ignoring the basic consensus that we relied on to function before.  That makes things more difficult, and the most characteristic example for us is the distinction between the public and the private, especially in relation to the discussion about higher education reform or the public financing of private entities, which Fernando has studied in great detail.  Today, it is completely natural for an institution, such as the Opus Dei or the University of Los Andes, or any other controlled by a transnational group, to receive money, even on the demand side, from the state, and to increase in this way its bottom line, its capital, and find itself in better conditions to compete with public institutions, which should be the main beneficiaries.  This arrangement has been fully incorporated into our common sense notions, nobody questions it, and when you share your opinion on this subject, it’s like you’re speaking in a different language.  I think there has been a profound transformation in the way we talk about things, and it isn’t just rhetorical—it has real political consequences.  In other words, the fact that private institutions, which are part of higher education, can receive resources from the state is not a rhetorical matter; it is a real problem, material, economic.

Fernando Atria: Today people can get away with saying, “private universities are public” and those who say it are not made to feel ridiculous for stating a contradiction, like if you said, “single people are married”…

Roberto Aceituno: Right, in the end, and this is to introduce a subtle distinction into the discussion with Fernando, although I agree that the analysis of the political situation cannot be reduced to the analysis of persons, of individuals, I think that we should not let this diagnosis lead us to the conclusion that individual positions taken by certain subjects of the political arena do not have real consequences, even within the institutional realm.  And that is what we sometimes ignore: that a specific act carried out by a person who holds an important office has real consequences in other areas.

I think, responding to the question about how we should proceed going forward, that perhaps we need more leaders that are less cautious, that the classic idea regarding risk be brought back, to be able to advance with a notion of a certain truth, even if it is not attained, without backpedaling due to fear.

Professor Atria, thinking about the kind of leadership that Professor Aceituno talks about, and since we are in an election year, what should be the minimum standards we should demand from the candidates or pre-candidates?

Fernando Atria: The problem is that the minimum standards that we should expect from the candidates would immediately exclude the leading candidate.  For example, that he/se shouldn’t keep their fortunes in tax havens…(laughter)

María Olivia Mönckeberg: To be perfectly blunt!  And also that a conflict of interest story involving the candidate should not appear every week in the press.

Fernando Atria: I agree with what María Olivia and Roberto have said, including Roberto’s subtle distinctions.  I don’t know if you agree with me on this, but since 1999, I don’t think there has been a more transformative administration like the Nueva Mayoría and Michelle Bachelet’s first year in office.  It was transformative because it was a government that had power, but it was not an institutionally produced power, it was entirely personal.  And what happened at the end of that first year?  That power vanished, because unlike an institutionally produced power, power that is personal ends when it ends.  That’s what happened, that’s exactly what happened at the end of the first year, and so everything returned to the normalcy of the binomial republic.  The window of opportunity for making transformative decisions was closed.

I use the expression “binomial republic” because by this point the problem is not that there are a few constitutional neutralizations, like a rule that established designated senators; today, this neutralizing idea went from the political institutions to a binomial political culture.  And it is the binomial political culture that is neutralized and that’s why, I think, it is a culture completely incapable of undertaking a transformational politics.  Our societies have never been just, our politics has never been completely pure, but it had something that it no longer has today.  It had a certain dimension, and I know you will criticize me for using this word, a certain hope.  Of course, I don’t mean hope in the sense of earthly paradise.  Hope in the sense that things can be different.   “The educational system is a system that is unequal and segregated, but it doesn’t have to be that way.” “The pension system is greedy, individualistic, it leads to poverty pensions, but it doesn’t have to be that way.” The idea that political action facilitates us, as citizens, in trying to figure out how things can be different, I think, has completely disappeared from politics.  Instead of how things could be different, politics is about how to fix, how to adjust.  Without that element of hope, politics is only about interests, and is understood as the arm of certain class.

Roberto Aceituno: The fact that we are asking these questions and, especially, asking them here, is a good sign.  It would be an even better sign if one heard this discussion in the media.  If a new path had to be laid out, a clearer break, as Fernando would say, with politics as usual, it would have to come from a new popular awareness spread by the news media, from cultural openings where people could say what has been kept in utter silence until now.  I think that lifting the silence, which gets bad press, along with hope, is also an important political act.  I think that we have become too accustomed to keeping silence.

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