May 20, 2020

Employers' Organizations and Quarantine Policies in Ibero-America: A Brief Reflection on the Chilean and Spanish Case

By Alejandro Osorio Rauld and José Reig Cuañes

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the strength, logistics, and leadership of states around the world. In order to face the health emergency, the governments have had to implement several degrees of confinement and “social distancing” that, lately, have saved millions of lives, albeit at a very high cost in terms of economic activity

The debate on the appropriate harmony between health protection and economic safeguard allows us to analyze an interesting aspect of political systems: the relationship between business elites and State power. Most of the policies that the pandemic has faced have been legitimized by the intervention of validated actors such as experts, technicians, advisers and also politicians of different persuasions. Their advice has contributed to protect citizens from what in biopolitical terms we could call a “letting die”, which was the dominant choice at first in several of the countries with leaders fit in with the commonly named “conservative populism” (USA, Brazil, UK). However, other social groups attempt to influence State decisions: this is the case of business elites and their organizations, acting as “pressure groups” that mobilize powerful resources in favor of their interests. Indeed, although the decisions of democratic States are supposedly sovereign, they are also influenced by demands from different social groups, such as workers, students, and, of course, those who conduct economic activity.

As the sociologist Philippe Schmitter (1991) reminds us, this is not necessarily negative. On the contrary, political systems need connection mechanisms between decision makers and society. It is, in fact, a game of balances between interests in part, expressed through participation mechanisms, and politically crystallized general interests. This is the way that those who exercise governance have plenty of authority to make independence decisions, putting the “general interest” before the requirements of groups that seek to influence the distribution of power.

Obviously, the “autonomy” of the State against pressure groups does not always and everywhere happens in the same way. The quarantine declaration against the threat of the pandemic, offers an extreme example that allows to analyze the behavior of the Chilean and Spanish business elites in the face of a decision that entails severe economic effects and that has been faced differently in both countries.

Indeed, in the face of the quarantine, the Chilean and Spanish employers' organizations have played a major role, with repeated public interventions by their leaders and official statements by the organizations. These statements and reactions show, however, differences in the way they influence political decisions. A good part of these differences can be explained in terms of “political culture” and seem to have to do with the different trajectory of both organizations during the transition to democracy and, of course, with the type of public space resulting from these transitions: more neoliberal in the Chilean case, more formally committed to a “European” type of “social State of law” in the Spanish case.

Since the transition to democracy until today, Spanish employers have accumulated experience of agreements with other actors, such as trade unions (UGT, CC.OO) and also political forces, establishing a “triangulation of power” very typical of social agreements in countries with Welfare States. The call by the President of the Government, Pedro Sanchez, to re-edit “Los Pactos de la Moncloa” between all political and social forces, in order to face the socio-economic reconstruction of Spain after the impact of the Covid-19, evokes the memory of this constituent milestone of Spanish democracy. It is also an indication of that experience that the negotiating attitude of the employers' association has been maintained, regardless of the discourse of the conservative opposition and the parliamentary battle that it undertook in the midst of the health and economic crisis.

But none of this is happening in Chile, since the model of democracy and development, which, of course, includes the role of the state and social actors, has not been discussed sovereignly by the citizens, until very recently and in the midst of a social explosion that has not yet had an institutional translation. In this sense, the maintenance of a "restricted democracy" with a radical neoliberal economy by the post-authoritarian governments has made it impossible to question the institutional rules and revise the role of the State and social actors in the public space. This was one of Philippe Schmitter's fears when he uneasily condemned neoliberalism as the enemy of social concertation. The Chilean case would be a perfect example of this situation, since the employers' associations, since the 1988 plebiscite until today, have never acted as a subordinate actor to politics as an activity that watches over the "general interest". On the contrary, the public development of Chilean employers has always consisted of exerting pressure on a weak state that does not have the constitutional tools to subordinate private interest to the "common good".

 Both in Chile (revolts in autumn 2019) and in Spain (15-M and its aftermath in the party system), the constitutional framework has recently been subjected to pressure and questioning with a strong social content and it is not to be ruled out that popular movements in the same direction will continue to take place. This challenge has not yet had an adequate institutional fit, either in Chile or in Spain, and it remains to be seen how the sphere of public intervention by the economic powers and their corporate organizations will be redefined in this scenario. Coming from different traditions in relation to public space, it is almost certain that they will also reach different places, something that only time will clarify.

Alejandro Osorio Rauld: Doctor en
sociología por la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Investigador en el GESP UCM-UNED. Correo electrónico:

José Reig Cuañes Doctor en historia por la Universidad de Alicante. Profesor de la Universidad Castilla-La Mancha. Correo electrónico:

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