Economic change was a hallmark of the late 20th century, when nations such as Russia, China, and Chile turned away from state-centered economic models to adopt free market exchange. Liberalization was not a simple process, particularly in Chile — where decades of political and social upheaval had left the country crippled. Even so, by the late 1980s, the economy was on the rise and the free market concept had taken deep root in Chilean culture.
For Luis Cárcamo-Huechante, associate professor of Romance languages and literatures in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, cultural acceptance of the free market model is one of the most intriguing aspects of the era.
“The spread of the free market economy was a multilayered process,” he explains. “The change was not just economic or political, but also cultural.”
By analyzing economic and political texts as well as literature, Cárcamo-Huechante hopes to “unveil the ways in which the idea of a free market became part of the Chilean public imagination after the mid-1970s.”
It’s a complicated endeavor, but Cárcamo-Huechante thinks that a variety of textual material from the late 20th century will help to provide answers. So he is delving into a range of sources, from public speeches to popular fiction. His research focuses on what he calls “las tramas,” the “plots” or “fictions” of the free market society.
“Chile was an experiment to ‘apply’ monetary policies on a society,” he says. “These types of transitions are not only material processes, but processes in which rhetoric, language, and cultural imagery play a major role.”
According to Cárcamo-Huechante, a strategy of persuasion was integral to the economic shift.
“The public had to be convinced about the benefits of the free market,” he says, “so it is revealing to read the rhetorical and discursive strategies of public intellectuals, policymakers, and literati of the period who supported and promoted the free market model in society.”
Among the persuasive texts studied by Cárcamo-Huechante, one of the earliest was a speech given by the American economist Milton Friedman in the spring of 1975 in Santiago. At the time, Chile had just entered a period of military dictatorship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who would be in power until 1990.
Speaking to Chilean political elites in that context, Friedman offered a bold diagnosis on the state of the economy. He proclaimed that Chile was “a sick country” that needed to undergo “shock therapy” to turn away from the welfare model and find economic improvement. His speech was one of several key factors that eventually persuaded military leaders to adopt the free market model.
According to Cárcamo-Huechante, Friedman’s text included a set of images, metaphors, and tropes that paved the way for a new line of thinking about the economy.
“We can look at the cultural dimensions of Friedman’s speech,” says Cárcamo-Huechante, “to understand how it went beyond simple economics or political economy.”
The description of Chile as a “sick” country and the idea of “shock therapy,” for example, offered a medical metaphor for economic processes such as inflation, debt crises, and “structural adjustment.” A free market model, by contrast, would provide a way to “heal” the economy. These and other narrative tools, says Cárcamo-Huechante, gave leaders a new perspective on the free market concept.
Public persuasion and promotion of the free market idea continued well into the 1980s, when the right-wing leader Joaquín Lavín published his book “Chile: Una revolución silenciosa” (“Chile: A Quiet Revolution” [Zig Zag, 1988]).
“Lavín’s book aimed to convince readers that Chile was a market of incredible variety and resources,” says Cárcamo-Huechante. “It offered a picture of the nation as a sort of hypermarket, full of things to sell, buy, and trade on a domestic and transnational scale.”
According to Cárcamo-Huechante, Lavin’s book reached a massive audience because it was written in plain language and sold through street vendors and kiosks.
“Both Friedman’s speech and Lavín’s book offer examples of how economists and politicians became ‘preachers’ of the free market, to use George Stigler’s idea of economists as preachers,” says Cárcamo-Huechante.
Not all of the “preaching” was positive. Cárcamo-Huechante is quick to note that because the transition took place in the context of violent military action and an authoritarian regime, much of the language used was highly aggressive.
“As I have highlighted, the economists called it ‘shock therapy,’” Cárcamo-Huechante says. “The adjustment absolutely involved rhetoric of violence.”
The violent rhetoric subsided in the 1990s as the political climate settled and Chileans became increasingly accustomed to the free market model in democracy. But the power of the “market culture” persisted, says Cárcamo-Huechante.
He finds examples everywhere. In 1990, for example, the writer Alberto Fuguet published a popular book of short stories titled “Overdose.” The opening tale, which takes place in a crowded shopping mall, features an overwhelmed teen racing through a multitude of consumers.
A more recent example comes from 2003, when the Chilean national library was wrapped in a L’Oréal cosmetics ad. According to Cárcamo-Huechante, the revenue generated through promotional use of the library walls helped to fund a restoration project.
“The library wrapping offers an excellent metaphor for the extent to which Chilean literary culture is framed by and depends on a market-driven imagination,” he says.
Cárcamo-Huechante’s research is the subject of a recent book titled “Tramas del mercado: imaginación econónomica, cultura, pública y literature en el Chile de fines del siglo veinte” (Editorial Cuarto Propio, 2007).