Dissertation Abstracts

Between Illusion and Disenchantment: Varieties of Capitalism in Chile and Argentina (1975–2010)

Author: Undurraga, Tomas , tomas.undurraga@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: Cambridge, United Kingdom
Supervisor: Goran Therborn
Year of completion: 2012
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Varieties of Capitalism , Neoliberalism , Argentina , Chile
Areas of Research: Economy and Society , Comparative Sociology , Social Transformations and Sociology of Development


During the last three decades, both Argentina and Chile have experienced capitalist revolutions ‘from above’, which have transformed relationships between firms, workers, and the state. These transformations have common elements: similar de-industrialization patterns focused on primary product exports, and ‘hierarchical market’ relationships between capital and labour. Despite these similarities, approaches to capitalism in these countries currently diverge. Neoliberalism in Chile is ingrained in the institutional setting and naturalized among business and political elites. In Argentina, by contrast, a post-neoliberal landscape emerged in the wake of the 2001 crisis and the state’s interventionist capacity was restored.

How does the literature on varieties of capitalism and capitalist change help explain these revolutions ‘from above’ in Argentina and Chile? It has been argued that a ‘new spirit’ that promotes autonomy, self-realization, and non-hierarchical relations has given capitalism a fresh justification in the developed world (Boltanski & Chiapello 2005). In this view, capitalism has become an increasingly theoretical enterprise supported by its own ‘cultural circuits’ (Thrift 2005), which produce theories that justify capitalism’s own purposes, recasting it as something creative and fun. Is this new spirit present in Chile and Argentina?

This thesis explores the varieties of capitalism in Argentina and Chile by asking three main questions. First, what are the similarities and differences of capitalism in these countries? Second, why did neoliberalism meet such different fates across the two countries? Third, what kinds of spirits have driven recent capitalist changes in these countries? This research is based on material collected from 120 interviews with representatives of the ‘cultural circuits of capitalism’ in Santiago and Buenos Aires during 2008-2009, combined with secondary data.

The main findings of this research suggest that beyond the common hierarchical pattern, the pro-business capitalism in Chile and the national-popular capitalism in Argentina operate differently. The cohesive business sector in Chile enjoys a dominant position whereas Argentina’s factious business class is on the defensive. Vertical employment relations in Chile differ from the more horizontal relationships in Argentina, where unions still play a prominent political role. Powerful cultural circuits of capitalism in Chile spread neoliberal notions of success, whereas analogous circuits in Argentina have been contested, losing influence and visibility. Neoliberalism was naturalized in Chile not only because it produced wealth and rising living standards, but also because the dictatorship removed the institutions that sanctioned collective action. Moreover, the political class maintained commitment to the market model through the transition to democracy. In Argentina, by contrast, neoliberalism was contested because the reforms wrought negative economic results and the political and business classes never fully supported it. Moreover, Argentine society resisted the de-collectivising effects of the reforms, spreading social movements and unrest. Finally, this research found that rather than a ‘new spirit’ of autonomy and emancipation, ‘old spirits’ of capitalism were revived in Argentina and Chile, such as the ‘commercial spirit’ of Smith, the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ of Schumpeter and the ‘destructive spirit’ of Polanyi. Whereas neoliberalism was contested and unleashed disenchantment in Argentina, it provided an illusion of progress in Chile.

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