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They send their children to private schools, live in gated communities and spend their free time in clubs among their own kind: the Chilean political scientist Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser wanted to know what makes the elites in his country tick - compared to the rest of the population.
To do this, he and his colleagues have personal interviews with politicians, cultural decision-makers and the bosses of the largest companies in Chile guided. The result: Above all, the economic elite lives in a bubble - and has little idea of the reality of the average citizen.
Cristóbal Rovira cold water, born 1978, is a Chilean political scientist who teaches at Diego Portales University in Santiago de Chile. His focus is on exploring the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. Rovira Kaltwasser did her PhD at the Humboldt University in Berlin. He lives in Sweden and Chile.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Rovira Kaltwasser, you have researched the thinking of the rich in your country. Why did you care?
Cristóbal Rovira cold water: We know that the economic elite is moving further and further away from the ordinary population. This is not only the case in Chile, but all over the world, including in the United States and in Germany. We wanted to know how far they have already isolated themselves.
MIRROR: How do you know that this elite in Chile is increasingly living in its own bubble?
Rovira cold water: Take the example of private schools. They are extremely expensive and are located in the isolated neighborhoods of the rich. Around 60 percent of current company bosses have attended private schools, but 90 percent of their own children are sent to private schools. This clearly shows the increasing segregation.
MIRROR: How does the economic elite live otherwise?
Rovira cold water: You stay among yourself. You live in districts that are very widely outsourced. There are some gated communities there, but also generally more police and private security services. In the morning they take their Mercedes and drive on a private motorway, which has to be paid for and which is of course in good shape, into the parking garage of an office building. You don't see anything of the city. They spend their free time in special clubs or villas on the beach. They have private clinics and private pension insurance. You don't talk to people who live differently from yourself. That leads to a completely shifted perception.
MIRROR: What do you perceive?
Rovira cold water: They believe everything is fine. Everything works for them. And nobody in their environment tells them that it is not so.
MIRROR: How does this affect your political and social attitudes?
Rovira cold water: Unsurprisingly, the economic elite would like a radically free market and even more privatization, although the market in Chile is largely unregulated and almost everything is privatized - but the majority of the population wants a social democratic system. Unlike most of the economic elites in Europe or the United States, the Chilean business elites are for the most part extremely conservative. Their private schools and universities are Catholic. Their attitudes toward divorce, abortion, and gay marriage are far from progressive. With this, too, they differ from the Chilean population, which has become more and more liberal over time.
SPIEGEL: Chile is one of the richest countries in Latin America and does quite well in terms of gross domestic product when compared internationally. At the same time, it is one of the most unequal countries in the world, currently it is on 16th place out of around 200.
Cold water: For a large part of the people in the country, inequality is a big, intolerable problem. But the economic elite does not see this problem. Only eight percent think that there is a major conflict between the employers and the workers, while half of the population feels that way. And 83 percent of Chileans classify Chile as a country in which people are treated extremely unequally, around 60 percent of the economic elites see it differently. Many of them consider, for example, the extreme wage inequality to be justified and unproblematic, so it could actually function as an "incentive" for the poor, after all, everyone is responsible for their happiness.
MIRROR: That sounds almost like satire. Do the rich really believe it or do you just benefit from it?
Rovira cold water: I don't think these people are evil in the Machiavellian sense. But they live in a completely different reality, a bubble. They don't capture what's really going on in Chile. The majority also isolate themselves mentally.
SPIEGEL: It's hard to imagine.
Rovira cold water: There was, for example, the case of the boss of a mining company who on Twitter is very active and one of the richest people in the country. He got involved in a discussion about social justice and said in an interview that it couldn't be that bad, after all, every middle-class Chilean owns two houses, one in the city and one on the beach. There was quite a scream. But this man, who only moves in his circles, actually had the impression that this was reality.
SPIEGEL: In autumn 2019, shortly before the pandemic, there was great social unrest in Chile. Millions protested in the streets. Didn't the rich wake up?
Rovira cold water: When the social protests came up, many of these people no longer understood the world. They wondered what's going on, why people are so angry, and couldn't understand it. We conducted our interviews with the bosses of the big companies both before and after the protests. Shockingly, we found that almost nothing has changed in their settings.
MIRROR: How is inequality noticeable during the pandemic?
Rovira cold water: In Chile, too, significantly more poor people die or suffer long-term consequences from corona disease.
MIRROR: Will the economic elite enjoy greater freedoms in the pandemic?
Rovira cold water: Basically, of course, it makes a difference whether you endure something like this in a large villa or in a small apartment. The police also turned a blind eye to curfews in the rich neighborhoods. But there were also cases where the rich were flew to the beach in a helicopter while the others were stuck in lockdown at home. That was illegal. But the fine is not a huge expense for someone who is rich. At the same time, at the beginning of the pandemic, entrepreneurs donated a lot of money for medical equipment, which fits their Catholic faith. But they barely understood the extent of the economic crisis on the streets.
MIRROR: Are you worried about your country?
Rovira cold water: We are experiencing a phase in which our democracy is unstable, people are revolting. The middle class today is much more educated and therefore also more demanding than 15 years ago. They no longer accept the unjust system without any social safety net. At the same time, we are experiencing a pandemic that is exacerbating inequality and poverty. This situation harbors a lot of potential for conflict. Nevertheless, positive changes also happened during the pandemic: The state - by Latin American standards - established generous aid for the poor. Beds in private hospitals have been confiscated and the clinics are obliged to accept Covid patients. And the vaccination campaign was organized solely through the public health system; the elites were not prioritized.
MIRROR: That sounds like the somewhat overused classic »crisis as opportunity«.
Rovira cold water: The measures have at least shown that it is possible to introduce a more social system. Of course, this is not available for free. Unfortunately, only a very small part of the economic upper class has understood that such a system would be more sustainable, would lead to more political stability - and ultimately the elites would also benefit from it.
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