The Right to Dignity
Housing Struggles, City Making, and Citizenship in Urban Chile
Miguel Pérez



Housing the Poor in a Neoliberal City

Tuesday, June 17, 2014. Early in the morning, around 7:00 a.m., I got together with over two hundred members of the Comité de Allegados Don Bosco—the housing assembly with which I had been conducting ethnographic research—in downtown Santiago. It was a typical winter morning: cold and a bit foggy, but I knew that the sun would break through the clouds later. We gathered on the corner of Pío Nono and Andrés Bello. The area is known as Plaza Italia, named after the square located directly across from our meeting spot. Plaza Italia is an urban “node,” meaning that it is a strategic, as well as a symbolic, point in the city (Lynch 1960). Plaza Italia is not only situated at the convergence of four major avenues—Alameda Bernardo O’Higgins, Providencia, Vicuña Mackenna, and Andrés Bello—it also is the cornerstone for popular protests and demonstrations in Santiago. Whether the site of a “spontaneous” celebration of a victory by the national soccer team or the starting point of a planned political march, demonstrators usually gather and organize together at Plaza Italia, which makes it a site of constant clashes between the police and the people. This explains the permanent presence of law enforcement at the site, a presence that increased considerably since October 18, 2019. That day marked the onset of the most significant rebellion against social inequality in the past thirty years in Chile. During the estallido social, or social uprising, in 2019, protesters rechristened Plaza Italia as “Plaza de la Dignidad” (Dignity Square), making it clear that the question of dignity was at the core of the protests against neoliberalism.

But Chileans’ claims for dignity and social justice did not start in 2019. The activists I met between 2011 and 2015 were part of an emerging movement through which they sought to achieve the right to housing and the right to la vida digna (a life with dignity). And that is why the Don Bosco members had congregated at that particular place on that winter morning in June 2014. On that occasion, they had gathered together to complain about what Ernesto, one of the organization’s leaders, called the “paradox” of Chile’s neoliberal housing programs. While handing out pamphlets to passersby, he explained: “We are here to fight against subsidy-based housing policies, because we can’t endure another winter without a home of our own. Although most of us [the members of the Don Bosco committee] have been granted state subsidies, we’re still waiting for private construction companies to build our houses. They are not interested in building housing units for the poor. Real estate developers don’t want to build social housing projects for us because it is not profitable for them. This is what the poor endure in a neoliberal country.”

This “paradox,” as Ernesto explained to me when I first met him in 2013, was even more flagrant in peripheral districts like La Florida, where the Don Bosco housing assembly was formed. There, the sustained increase in land prices over recent decades had led to a context in which, despite the availability of vacant plots, “there is no money to pay for all the expenses related to homebuilding.” The idea to meet early in the morning in downtown Santiago, which is about an hour away from La Florida by public transportation, was a strategic decision. On the one hand, it is the time when most santiaguinos are on their way to work. This means that if protesters were to barricade any of the major avenues, they could easily draw media attention because of the impact that such an action would have on urban traffic flows. On the other hand, for those Don Bosco members who were not able to take the day off, they would still be able to get to work on time or, if things were to escalate, be just a little late.

On June 17, 2014, things got out of hand. After dozens of housing activists attempted to block Andrés Bello Avenue at 7:30 a.m., the police intervened and detained six or seven of them. The rest of us, who had not been arrested, gathered again at Pío Nono Bridge and remained there for another hour and a half. At around 9:00 a.m., someone who I could not identify shouted: “Let’s go to the MINVU [Ministry of Housing and Urbanism]!” In a completely improvised move, we took over two lanes of Bernardo O’Higgins Avenue, known as La Alameda and the main artery of downtown Santiago, and began marching toward the ministry. The crowd, made up mostly of women, flew Chilean flags and sang the national anthem two or three times during our march. However, people’s passions soared even more when chanting “La vivienda es un derecho, no un privilegio” (“Housing is a right, not a privilege”) and “Somos caleta, más que la chucha, somos pobladores unidos en la lucha” (“We’re a lot, a hell of a lot, we’re pobladores united in the struggle”).

•   •   •

This book talks about what Chileans commonly refer to as pobladores, that is, poor urban residents. It is an ethnographic account of pobladores’ participation in social movements for the right to housing and the right to the city in Santiago; their constitution and recognition as ethical-political subjects engaged in both squatter settlement movements in the mid-twentieth century and in subsidy-based housing programs in neoliberal Chile; their modes of collective action arising from the struggle to obtain subsidized housing; their power to articulate political agency in different historical contexts based on their involvement in the making of the city; their capacity to formulate novel understandings of citizenship and rights by demanding the right to remain in their neighborhoods of origin; and their capacity to generate new political horizons grounded in demands for dignity. By scrutinizing how Chilean pobladores constitute themselves as political subjects, this book reveals the mechanisms through which housing activists develop new imaginaries of citizenship in a country in which the market was the dominant force organizing social life for almost forty years. It does so by interrogating the limits and potentialities of urban movements, which are framed by both poor people’s involvement in neoliberal programs and the capacity of those same individuals to struggle against the commodification of social rights by claiming the right to live with dignity—a demand based on a moral category that helped give shape to the 2019 estallido social.

An Ethnographic Exploration of Subjects and Political Movements

In Chile, the word poblador is a class- and territory-based category commonly used to refer to poor urban residents. The notion of poblador is closely bound up with the term población, a concept that has been utilized since the late nineteenth century to allude to working-class neighborhoods located in the urban peripheries.1 A commonsense definition of poblador would thus be anyone who lives in a población. Pobladores have historically been considered a heterogeneous mass of people who have been able to “micro-colonize” the spatial and social outskirts of society (Salazar and Pinto 2002, 240). As residents of the peripheries, public opinion has generally depicted pobladores as a “marginal population” located at the bottom of the social ladder. In turn, poblaciones have frequently been conceptualized as the spatial expression of such a marginal condition. Edward Murphy (2015, 11) argues that the words pobladores and poblaciones have had “specific, varied, and at times contested meanings” throughout the twentieth century. The nuances in their meanings are a result of the tense relationship between housing activism and state policies, a relationship that has played a key role in the formation of the state and the public sphere. In this book, I expand upon Murphy’s assertion by arguing that the category poblador, in addition to being exposed to resignifications, has also operated as a political category for subject formation. I hold that the Chilean urban poor, by recognizing themselves as pobladores, become political subjects capable of addressing the state by using a rights-based language. To do so, I examine past and present housing movements through which working-class families have been able to form their subjectivities as subject-citizens endowed with rights and dignity.

Looking at pobladores as a specific type of political subjectivity anchored in poor people’s participation in housing movements does not imply that they have a cohesive identity or identical worldviews. Although working-class residents have long drawn on the term poblador to give shape to their struggles, the term itself has had different connotations, depending on who has used the word and why (see Murphy 2015). The category of poblador has been indistinctively utilized to allude to marginal groups, political clients, or revolutionary subjects. Thus, there is no a single definition of what it means to be a poblador, nor has the usage of the term been the same throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This openness in the meaning of the word is crucial to understanding the processes of subject formation and the specific forms of social distinction that such a term has made possible among the urban poor. In the following chapters, I show that, both in the past and at present, the social category of pobladores has been composed of individuals with diverse political affiliations, opposing ideological discourses, and different moral comprehensions of themselves as housing activists. However, regardless of pobladores’ internal differences, it is striking to note that contemporary housing activists—such as those I encountered during the fieldwork for this book—think of the word poblador as endowed with a generative power, as if the very the usage of the term enables them to become collective actors. In this book, I do not seek to propose a normative definition of the word poblador, nor do I argue that the term has a singular meaning. Rather, I reflect on a historical process in which, while poor urban residents have long been subject to social exclusion, their discourses and political practices around housing have helped transform the meaning of the term poblador. In particular, I explore how new generations of housing activists make sense of this category in their everyday interactions and how their subjective understanding of it has allowed them to both construct collective memories of the past and carry out social protest movements for rights and social justice.

In English, the word housing has two connotations, depending on how speakers use it in their linguistic interactions (Turner 1972). When used as a noun, housing alludes to a material product, a commodity through which people seek to satisfy their need for shelter. In contrast, the verb “‘to house’ describes the process or activity of housing” (Turner 1972, 151). As a political anthropologist, understanding housing as a verb leads me to examine the role of housing in people’s everyday life and, more specifically, how their aspirations for homeownership inform their involvement in urban politics. Focusing on the case of Chile, this book seeks to accomplish this through an ethnographic study on what scholars have called the movimiento de pobladores (pobladores movement) in order to describe poor residents’ protest movements for housing rights.2 My focus, then, is on the political interventions through which people struggling for housing seek to transform their precarious living conditions as urban residents and on how such practices help develop new types of subjectivities.

The phrase movimiento de pobladores evokes various meanings, all of which allude to different, historically situated urban struggles for rights to the city. When reflecting on the pobladores movement, social scientists have generally elaborated on two theoretical fields, both of which relate to the capacity of the urban poor to participate in politics as collective actors. On the one hand, they have analyzed the extent to which large-scale housing-related mobilizations—like the mid-twentieth-century squatter movement—give rise to transformative urban social movements. On the other hand, they have long examined the relationship between pobladores and the political system as a means to discuss the capacity of such movements to propose an agenda for social change as autonomous political agents. But what happens when, as I show in the opening field note, low-income urban dwellers seek to achieve their right to housing by participating in neoliberal housing programs? I address this question by delving into how poor residents struggling for subsidized housing configure their political agencies in an era of neoliberal governmentality.

The Claim to Housing Rights from the Urban Peripheries

In Latin America, poor urban dwellers have long understood housing as a social right, that is to say, as a right that must be guaranteed by the state to all citizens so that they can attain an adequate standard of living. This conceptualization of housing has led to widespread demands for homeownership, which contrasts with the circumstances in countries like the United States where homeownership is primarily seen as one’s own personal responsibility (Murphy 2015). In Chile, los sin casa (those who do not have a home of their own) have historically conceived of the lack of legal residence in the city as an “affront to the dignity and the sociopolitical status of the urban poor” (Murphy 2015, 267). The category of los sin casa can include people with a variety of different residential situations, some of which I explore in this book. For example, it can refer to poor families living as squatters in informal settlements, as room renters, or as allegados, the latter alluding to individuals who reside in relatives’ homes, generally in overcrowded conditions. In any case, los sin casa have long mobilized for housing rights and homeownership through different forms of activism. This largely explains why, since the beginning of twentieth century, the Chilean state has developed homeownership-oriented housing policies, even during governments inspired by progressive and socialist ideals.

In Santiago, as in many other cities in the so-called Global South, poor city dwellers engaged in mass urban movements for housing in the mid-twentieth century as a way to access homeownership. Between the early 1950s and 1973, los sin casa conducted large-scale land seizures in the urban peripheries, developed self-built campamentos (squatter settlements), and organized for improving the conditions of their residential spaces. In a context of increasing urban struggles, the term poblador took on a uniquely political character as it began to refer to poor residents who had organized powerful social justice movements. Pobladores constituted themselves as transformative, collective actors, which allowed them to become one of the more recognizable social forces backing the socialist project of Salvador Allende (1970–1973).

However, the pobladores’ actions were severely constrained once General Augusto Pinochet overthrew Salvador Allende’s government. The subsequent military dictatorship (1973–1990) steadily quashed land occupations, carried out massive evictions of squatter settlements located in the wealthiest areas of Santiago, and killed hundreds of poor residents. Los sin casa could no longer occupy urban lands as part of their movement, and the state persecuted those who engaged in housing struggles. Incapable of obtaining housing solutions through land takeovers, lower-income families without a home of their home came to be characterized predominantly as allegados. The category of allegados, as a term referring to people sharing a house with relatives, was already in use in the mid-twentieth century. However, it was in the 1980s that the word began to circulate more widely in public policy discourse, as residing in other people’s houses became the most common strategy used by the poor to deal with the lack of social housing.3 To become homeowners, allegados were forced to enroll in new, subsidy-based housing programs created in the late 1970s as part of the military regime’s “modernization” process. Consistent with the neoliberal orientation of the dictatorship’s reforms, these programs conceived of poor families as rational actors who would be able to obtain housing as a commodity in the private market. Homeownership, in that sense, came to be understood as the result of an individual effort rather than a collective one. But pobladores assumed a renewed political role by shifting the focus of their protests from housing to democracy. Being one the most active segments of the working classes in the struggle for democracy, poor urban residents played a decisive role in the Jornadas de Protesta Nacional (Days of National Protest) by drawing on the social networks and organizing skills they had attained through their neighborhood associations. This led to certain poblaciones—especially those that received the support of the Communist Party—becoming an important setting for political resistance against the military regime.4

The remarkable political significance of pobladores vanished once Pinochet’s regime ended. To maintain the neoliberal economic, political, and institutional arrangement created by the military regime, the center-left governments that followed the dictatorship attempted to prevent the proliferation of grassroots movements. The return to democracy in 1990 thus marked the beginning of a state-led demobilization in which the ruling classes dismissed the popular sectors as valid interlocutors when it came to discussing the type of social compact that would regulate the new democratic period.5 To avoid the resurgence of large-scale land seizures, these governments started to allocate considerable public expenditures for subsidized housing projects on the basis of the neoliberal urban policies implemented in the late 1970s. At the same time, poor families were increasingly compelled to enroll in comités de allegados (state-regulated housing assemblies) to be able to apply for housing subsidies and become homeowners.

The utilization of subsidy-based housing policies allowed postdictatorial governments to expand access to social housing among the lowest-income groups. During the 1990s, when Chile had a population of over thirteen million people, the state endeavored to construct at least ninety thousand subsidized housing units per year (Arriagada and Moreno 2006). This eventually helped reduce the quantitative housing shortage—that is, the number of housing units needed for everybody to have adequate housing—from 918,756 units in 1990 to 743,450 in 2000, which represents a decrease from a 53 percent housing deficit to a 37 percent deficit (Ministerio de Planificación 2001). The reduction of the housing deficit persisted in the following decades, dropping to 497,560 units in 2017 (Fundación Vivienda 2019). Nonetheless, the housing shortage increased again because of the joint effect of the economic crisis provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic starting in 2020 and the inefficiency of subsidy-based housing policies. Official MINVU data showed that the housing deficit increased to 600,000 units in 2021 (Diario Financiero 2021), meaning that around 11 percent of households in Chile did not have a home of their own in 2020 and 2021.

Despite the increase in the housing shortage in recent years, since 1990 Chile’s subsidized model has stood out for helping the governments lower the number of families in need of housing. But the significant progress in building subsidized housing turned out to be paradoxical for the poor. Since the early 1980s, low-income families have been forced to move to the distant outskirts of the city in order to obtain subsidized housing (map 2). Homeownership has become a means of segregating and socially excluding low-income families. This is what Rodríguez and Sugranyes (2005) understand as the dilemma of los con techo (“those who have housing”): the quandary of those who, to fulfill the dream of their own home (el sueño de la casa propia), have had to abandon their original neighborhoods and live in subsidized housing projects in the urban peripheries.

This paradox largely explains the reemergence of housing movements since the mid-2000s. As I show in this book, the resurgence of social protests around housing is closely related to both novel claims for the right to a life with dignity and the transformation of the ways in which poor residents conceive of themselves as urban citizens with dignity. Although pobladores had been actively involved in housing assemblies since the early 1990s, it was only in the mid-2000s that such involvement transformed into public forms of activism. The tactics used in these new protests consist not of land occupations but of participation in subsidy-based housing programs, similar to those that were used in the 1990s to demobilize the urban poor. What occurs, then, when low-income residents demanding the right to housing and dignity are no longer squatters but recipients of state subsidies? This book addresses the question of how to account for the formation of transformative political agencies when neoliberal housing programs frame poor people’s claims for housing and dignity.

MAP 2. Social housing units built by housing project, 1980–2003. Source: Ministry of Housing and Urbanism, 2015. Credit: Juan Correa.

The Right to Housing in Neoliberal Chile

Chile’s recent political history is framed by massive state repression, broad-reaching neoliberalization, and intense protest movements for social rights. The case of this country, however, contrasts with other “post-neoliberal” states in Latin America like Bolivia, Argentina, or Venezuela, as neoliberalism remained firmly and solidly embedded in Chile for over forty years. Implemented in the in the mid-1970s during Pinochet’s regime and entrenched in the country’s 1980 constitution, the neoliberal reforms enacted in Chile founded a political, economic, and cultural project that remained practically unaltered until the late 2010s. The 2011 student movement, a mass reaction to the commodification of the right to education, questioned the ideological principles of Chile’s neoliberalism. But the movement lost momentum between 2012 and 2013, and some of its demands were addressed by President Michelle Bachelet’s second administration (2014–2018). Around the same time, other social movements came into play and, in different ways, denounced the privatization of social life by demanding gender, environmental, labor, and indigenous rights.6 These mobilizations, along with those related to housing demands that I describe in this book, helped to configure the 2019 social uprising. In October of that year, what started out as students engaging in mass fare dodging to protest against a 4 percent hike in Santiago metro fares, quickly transformed into a widespread movement against social inequality. Millions of people flooded the country’s major cities calling for an end to the 1980 constitution, which they saw as the embodiment of Chile’s market-driven economy. The 2019 social uprising resulted in a plebiscite to rewrite the constitution, which eventually took place on October 25, 2020.

Chile’s initial turn to neoliberalism in the mid-1970s emerged as a violent response to President Salvador Allende’s socialist project and sought to reestablish the conditions for capital accumulation and restore power to economic elites (Harvey 2005). Allende’s presidency had attempted to expand the welfare system for the poor by, among other measures, redistributing land through a significant agrarian reform program and nationalizing both the foreign-owned copper industry and the banking system. Advised by economists trained at the University of Chicago—the so-called Chicago Boys—Pinochet executed a radical macroeconomic restructuring to revert Allende’s “Chilean road to socialism.” Based on the idea that the free market is the best way to achieve development and wealth, the military dictatorship “reversed the nationalizations and privatized public assets, opened up natural resources (fisheries, timber, etc.) to private and unregulated exploitation . . . , privatized social security, and facilitated foreign direct investment and freer trade” (Harvey 2005, 8).

In terms of urban planning, the dictatorship’s market-oriented reforms entailed an early and extreme liberalization of urban land markets.7 The 1979 National Policy of Urban Development followed three main principles. First, urban land is not a scarce good. Its “apparent scarcity,” the policy said, resulted from the lack of consistency between state regulations and the real estate market’s balance between supply and demand (Ministerio de Vivienda y Urbanismo 2012, 16). Second, use of urban land is to be defined by its profitability. This meant that the free market would be able to balance the rentabilidad social (social profitability) of real estate developments and the private interests of developers. Third, the use of urban land must be regulated by flexible norms in accordance with market requirements. This meant that state regulations, rather than acting to regulate the market, should “follow” it as a way to secure capital accumulation. These and other measures—for example, the displacement of squatter settlements and the creation of socially homogeneous comunas (municipalities) in Santiago—were supposed to control speculation and land prices. Quite the opposite occurred, as urban land prices in Santiago increased by almost 1,000 percent between 1982 and 2012 (El Mercurio 2012). In chapter 3, I show that the sustained increase in land prices in the city is at the core of pobladores’ struggles for housing, as it makes it more difficult for the poor to obtain housing.

Current subsidy-based housing policies are grounded in the neoliberal urban reforms developed during the dictatorship. Developed in the late 1970s, subsidy-based policies brought about a radical change in the way Chilean pobladores access and conceive of social housing. In the mid-twentieth century, housing activists expected to obtain social housing through collective action. With technical supervision by the state, they usually became homeowners by either creating housing cooperatives or building their residential spaces themselves. Nonetheless, since the late 1970s, state policies have come to conceptualize housing as a consumer good that the poor can access individually through the market using both state subsidies and private savings. In essence a voucher-based system, these policies provide housing subsidies to low-income individuals who, understood as rational economic agents, purchase homes built by real estate developers.

This subsidy-based system of housing provision has been the model for housing policies implemented elsewhere in the Global South. The World Bank and other international agencies supported Chile’s neoliberal housing programs and even persuaded other countries to adopt them. Since the early 1990s, Colombia, Costa Rica, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil, among others, introduced their own subsidy-based policies inspired by the Chilean experience. In all these cases, international agencies suggested that governments withdraw from the construction market to make way for the privatization of housing. Governments, in fact, were “advised to limit their involvement in productive activities and to cut much of their regulative intervention. . . . Along with education, health, infrastructure provision, and transport, housing became an eminently suitable candidate for private sector initiative” (Gilbert 2004a, 14).

This market-led modality of social housing production has resulted in three main outcomes. First, housing has turned into a commodity that is attained as means-tested assistance, that is, as a finished product distributed individually among the poorest families. Second, housing is often located in peripheral areas that lack infrastructure and services, which has consolidated class separation and spatial inequality.8 Third, prospective homeowners are expected to enroll in subsidy-based housing programs to fulfill their aspirations for homeownership. As technologies of government, these programs seek to form the urban poor as responsible citizens capable of governing themselves by instilling values of self-sufficiency and individual autonomy.9 Chile’s housing programs have long aimed to inculcate ideas of civility and responsibility among the poor. In the 1960s, for instance, prospective homeowners had to demonstrate that they were “responsible workers and family members” (Murphy 2015, 87) by depositing monthly quotas into saving accounts that the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism had opened for them. There is certainly a continuity in the moralizing language used by the state when imagining the poor as civilized citizens. However, what is new in the neoliberal period is that, since the late 1970s, the poor began to be conceptualized as individualized, rational economic agents rather than as rights-bearing subjects. As technologies for infusing individuals with this new economic ethos, subsidy-based housing policies can thus be understood as underlying the cultural project of Chile’s neoliberalism; one in which the poor become citizen-consumers able to make rational choices in every domain of their lives.

Neoliberalized Pobladores ?

Through the Foucauldian notion of governmentality, scholarly debates have elaborated extensively on the cultural dimension of neoliberalism. For Foucault (2003), advanced liberal societies rely on a kind of power that depends less on surveillance and discipline than on calculative operations and regulation. Foucault calls this form of power government. Rather than subduing the capacity of action of the governed, this type of power recognizes the subject’s faculty for agency in order to act instrumentally upon it. Thus, to manage the conduct of individuals and populations, neoliberal technologies of government presuppose the freedom of the governed. This is what Foucault and others have referred to as “government through freedom,” a mode of exerting power grounded in the rationalization of procedures in every domain of social life and the promotion of autonomous and self-responsible citizens.10 What is at stake in neoliberal societies is thus to diffuse “market logics throughout society” (Goodale and Postero 2013, 8). Building on this perspective on governmentality, Ong (2006, 13) defines neoliberalism as “an art of governing whose logic is the condition of individual active freedom.” It is precisely in neoliberalism where a new “game of powers” emerges that Rose (1999) calls ethico-politics. If disciplinary power focuses on maximizing the utility and docility of individuals, and biopower deals with maximizing the health of populations, ethico-politics “concerns itself with the self-techniques necessary for responsible self-government and the relations between one’s obligation to oneself and one’s obligations to others” (Rose 1999, 188, original emphasis).

The successful process for the mass provision of subsidized housing to the urban poor since 1990 has led social scientists to stop thinking of pobladores as transformative political agents. Their involvement in neoliberal housing programs seemed to relegate them to a cast of responsible citizens who were forced to wait, whether to receive subsidies, to become homeowners, or something else. This has been interpreted as a tangible expression of their pacification. Over the past three decades, scholars have analyzed the category of poblador as primarily a social identity signifier, alluding to a heterogeneous aggregation of low-income urban dwellers, now exposed to new forms of power. Three fields of scholarship on the Chilean urban poor have emerged in this context. The first one has focused on the examination of how the implementation of neoliberalism altered the characteristics of poverty and how the poor have subjectively made sense of these changes.11 The second has focused on the demobilization of popular social sectors. With respect to urban movements, scholars have also scrutinized the pacifying role of subsidy-based housing programs in the vanishing of land seizure movements.12 The third field of research has delved into how former squatters signify the process of becoming homeowners by both acquiring middle-class values and re-creating nostalgic views of their past life experiences in the self-built settlements.13

The issue of how new generations of poor residents configure their political agencies as welfare recipients who are “in waiting,”14 and how their participation in subsidy-based programs frame their demands for housing and dignity, has barely been explored. When speaking on the political character of pobladores, scholars tend to look to the past and the events surrounding the emergence of the old pobladores movement. In doing so, they construe the agency contained in the category poblador as depending exclusively on the collective practices that working-class urban dwellers engaged in during the mid-twentieth century. Such a perspective conceives of pobladores’ agency as fixed and static in time, which hinders our ability to understand how their political capacities reemerge in a period of neoliberal governmentality. To approach this reemergence, I argue that the word poblador operates both as a social identity category and as a political signifier, which urban activists draw on in certain conditions to formulate political subjectivities. I do so by first examining the constitution of pobladores genealogically as political subjects and, second, by ethnographically describing how such a subject-formation process takes place in the context of current housing struggles.

The housing activists I met considered their political actions directly rooted in the old housing mobilizations. They conceived of the movements that they were engaged in as a contemporary expression of the movements that their parents and grandparents had carried out in the mid-twentieth century. In situating their struggles within a broader historical framework, the people I encountered looked at the past as a source of symbolic and political power, allowing them to take part of a particular form of subjectivity. In doing so, they conceptualized the category of pobladores as containing a consistent type of identity, as if the pobladores of the past were “the same” as those of the present. However, confronted with the need to bring this subjectivity into the present to determine what it means to be a poblador in this day and age, and which rights one is entitled to, they established strict mechanisms of distinction based on moral evaluations of themselves and others. By inquiring into prospective homeowners’ ethical and political practices, this book seeks to account for how urban activists re-create their subjectivity as pobladores while enrolled in neoliberal programs.

In this book, I’m not interested in determining whether housing protests in neoliberal Chile lead to subversive urban social movements, nor do I seek to affirm or deny the existence of pobladores as revolutionary collective actors per se. Such approaches, I argue in the following chapters, have prevented the social sciences from scrutinizing how the poor become political agents by claiming the right to housing through their participation in state policies and programs. Some crucial questions thus arise: What kind of subject is formed when working-class social movements are carried out through the subject’s involvement in market-based housing programs? What kind of values do these welfare programs seek to instill in people waiting to obtain subsidized housing, and how do those values inform their everyday practices? What type of citizenship comes about in circumstances in which state policies conceptualize housing as a commodity rather than as a social right?

Anthropologists have persuasively argued for the need to transcend Eurocentric approaches to neoliberalism, to situate neoliberal cultural and political projects—which are always fragmented, incomplete and contested rather than fully realized—within the particular settings in which they develop.15 I take this challenge as an invitation to reflect ethnographically on the specific directions that neoliberalism has taken in a country of the Global South, such as Chile. The main argument in the book is that, in advanced neoliberal societies, the process of citizen-subject formation that results from social movements framed by poor residents’ engagement in welfare programs is paradoxical: although low-income inhabitants’ participation in these programs fosters the development of a neoliberal ethics through which they become entrepreneurial and self-reliant rights bearers, it also makes the emergence of new political agencies aimed at contesting the commodification of social rights possible. I understand the idea of agency as a process of political and ethical formation in which meanings are open to unexpected delimitations rather than fixed in advance.16 This book questions the limits and potentialities of political resistance to neoliberalism when working-class residents draw on neoliberal programs to articulate their demand for rights. In this regard, I argue that poor people’s engagement in welfare programs not only sets the condition for the production of “responsibilized and entrepreneurialized” subject-citizens (Rose 1999, 139). It also makes social protests appear to resist the dominance of the market over the allocation of social rights. At the core of this paradox, poor urban dwellers formulate their political narratives through moral categories such as “dignity,” to ethically signify their everyday experiences with vulnerability and to shape the strategic orientations of their movement against neoliberal policies.


1. For an historical analysis of Santiago’s urban peripheries in the late nineteenth century, see De Ramón (1985).

2. For a detailed analysis of the pobladores movement, see Castells (1973, 1983); Pastrana and Threlfall (1974); V. Espinoza (1982, 1988); Garcés (2002); Murphy (2015). See more in chapter 2.

3. See, e.g., Chateau and Pozo’s (1987) and Necochea’s (1987) works on housing-related issues during the dictatorship.

4. See more in Schneider (1995).

5. See more in Oxhorn (1994); Paley (2001).

6. See more in Donoso and Bülow (2017).

7. See more in Sabatini (2000).

8. See also Caldeira (2017).

9. On the relationship between technologies of government and the process of subject-citizen formation, see Cruikshank (1999); Ong (2003).

10. For other perspectives on Foucault’s concept of government, see Rose (1999); Cruikshank (1999); Ong (2003).

11. See, e.g., Bengoa (1996); Martínez and Palacios (1996); Han (2012).

12. On the demobilization of the urban poor in Chile, see Oxhorn (1994); Paley (2001). On the pacification of housing struggles in the 1990s, see Hipsher (1996); Özler (2012).

13. See, e.g., Márquez (2004); Salcedo (2010).

14. See also Koppelman (2018).

15. See, e.g., Ferguson (2010); Kingfisher and Maskovsky (2008).

16. See more in Mahmood (2012).