Intrinsic to social life is its variety. As such, taking a sociological perspective, it’s never boring: contradiction spices things up. Even more so, contradiction necessitates conflict of opinion, and so incites debate, thereby advancing democracy and social development.
It follows that politics as the activity of organising social life, must be contradictory, too. This is a good thing, for if it were policy to even out the edges of opinion to suppress the emergence of contradictory worldviews something like Pinochet’s Chile would emerge. A society in which contradiction must not be expressed, is a chamber for mental torture – and oftentimes for physical torture, too.
Fortunately, the country’s torture chambers exist only as museums and contradiction asserts itself in the public debate.
Take the case of prominent socialist Osvaldo Andrade, whose wife qualifies for an exorbitant pension. This example touches the heart of contradictions those who call themselves left-wingers face: How to reconcile personal wealth with their supposed fight against excessive wealth.
Mr. Andrade’s wife, Myriam Olate, will receive a pension of CLP$ 5 million – way above what almost any Chilean can expect from their privatised pension fund, AFP (if hedge fund crack didn’t gamble their pension away or ‘the markets’ devoured it).
Both Mrs. Olate and her husband admit that the pension is high indeed, but it has been earned through honest work and in line with the rules. Mrs. Olate expressed “feeling shame”, but implies at the same time that as assistant manager of communications for the Chilean police, the Carabineros, she also deserves it.
At first the outrage seemed a bit funny and unjustified to me. Yes, it’s an excessive package, and it’s not fair. But that’s not Mrs. Olate’s fault. Working for the state is per se lucrative and member of the forces always receive generous reward. The importance of their service and longer working hours rightly count as justifications.
Later on however, it emerged that the pension might indeed smell a bit funny, even for the Socialist Party. Still and whatever comes of that, Andrade is neither the first nor will he be the last socialist accused of hypocrisy.
On the other side of the political spectrum contradiction is apparent, too, although less controversial. Right-wingers are unapologetically in favour of amassing riches. And while they don’t face the same accusations of hypocrisy over it they fall into a trap of law and order.
Ex-president Sebastián Piñera, for example, has always been a tough-on-crime talker. During his presidency an ‘iron fist’ policy was implemented that indeed seemed to reduce petty crime in Downtown Santiago. The policy is now backfiring as the recent surge in crime coincides with the end of prison sentences handed for pick-pocketing etc. Mr. Piñera thus effectively sent petty thieves into privatised training facilities, called prisons. These former petty thieves now work as violent attackers throughout the city, aiming for much higher prizes.
Mr. Piñera is a very lucky man. If a similarly ambitious ruler, not a lazy sadist, would have been in power during Mr. Piñera’s time at the Bank of Talca, he might well work a job in the shadow public sector. This is so because Mr. Piñera has gained experience as a bank robber.
As executive of the Bank of Talca in the early 1980s he and two colleagues performed an inside job that loaded US $200 million on the bank’s balance sheets and lifted it out of shareholders’ pockets. The scheme functioned by lending money on dubious terms and in clear violation of the law to shell companies. When his colleagues went to jail on suspicion of fraud, Chile’s future president and committed conservative abandoned helter-skelter house and wife to disappear for 24 days. During this time he was effectively a prisoner at-large. He escaped the fate of his colleagues by putting his money to work and hired a team of lawyers who kept him out of prison.
By now the contradiction of talking about law and order is already quite apparent. But truth is stranger than fiction. Indeed, at a Council on Foreign Relations talk he expounded on the importance of teaching people to take responsibility for their own life. A former prisoner at-large cum president, implicated in every corruption scandal in Chile is educating the poor on taking responsibility: how’s that for contradiction?
The reason why this case didn’t cause nearly as much outrage is not only that Piñera was lucky to be at the helm at the time of skyrocketing copper prices, giving the impression he handled the economy well. Part of the reason is also the Chileans expect to be robbed by corrupt officials; they just don’t like being lied to about it. Indeed, I’ve been shocked about how many people openly admit they don’t vote, because politicians are like businesspeople, working to fill their own pockets. (Anyone remembers ex-president Lagos and infrastructure building licences?)
But here Chilean society is contradictory itself. For how can you demand democracy without taking an interest in electing the ones that represent you, or not even bother invalidate your vote by scratching the ballot?
It seems to me that focusing on contradictions is vital. This won’t solve the left’s dilemma, nor will it prevent the country being ruled by crooks. But it pushes real mistakes to the fore, instigates debate and above all gives voice to indignation. Sure, it’s hard. But it makes the country a better place.