South Korean Radicalism in an Age of Neoliberalism

A review of After the Crossroads: Neo-liberal Globalization, Democratic Transition, and Progressive Urban Community Activism in South Korea, by Kwang-Hyung Park.

Amid the macro currents shaping contemporary South Korea’s urban cityscapes and political ecology, Park Kwang-Hyung dives into the individual lives, histories, and experiences of so-called progressive activists.  In dialogue with neo-Marxist theories of political mobilization, Park argues that the historical experiences and “multi-layeredness” of individual lives mediate the manifestation and outcomes of macro-level forces such as globalization, industrialization, urbanization, and modernization.  These macro-historical forces and their accompanying analytical binaries, global-local, developed-undeveloped, urban-rural, modern-traditional, are useful sociological tools, Park acknowledges, but only when understood in conjunction with the temporal and spatial complexities faced by those individuals ‘swimming amidst a whirlpool’ of social change (p. 42).  Park’s consideration of socioeconomic embeddedness enhances Marxist theories and populist Korean minjung ideologies which often explain class identity and socialist mobilization using abstract, macro level concepts.  Following the careers and life experiences of three democracy-movement-student-activists-turned-community-activists, Park recovers the lived experiences which ironically contributed to, but are also often omitted from, the narrative of shifting progressive politics in an era of neo-liberalism and post-democratization.  Having bored down to the level of individual experiences and understandings, Park is then able to zoom back up to the macro level and offer a more sophisticated accounting of the oft applied constructs “progressivism” and “neoliberalism” in the context of contemporary South Korean politics.

In Chapter 1, Park begins with an exposition of the macro analytical constructs most often attributed to South Korea’s modern transformation. He frames the sociological and historical context of South Korean radicalism in the era of neo-liberalism, presents his research questions, and follows up with a review of relevant literature and a summary of methods employed.  The central empirical puzzle driving Park’s dissertation is the fact that the South Korean progressive movement came to a halt following the 2008 financial crisis and amid the widespread discrediting of neo-liberal market fundamentalism.  Park uses this case to question the familiar binary of structure and agency, in particular the causal relationship between socio-economic changes and political mobilization.  When we meet Park’s subjects, all three of whom were former student activists during Korea’s democracy movement, they are not leading a country-wide charge against rampant privatization, labor exploitation, and legalized usury as we might expect of progressive activists living in the age of neoliberalism.  Rather they are disengaged from national politics and involved in various forms of community activism.  In light of these facts, Park questions the utility of “such sweeping theoretical concepts as industrialization and neo-liberal globalization in capturing practices on the ground.”  Who are these activists, how did they devote themselves to community activism, and what does democracy look like from the bottom up?

Along the downward descent from the macro to micro, Chapter 2 introduces two analytical perspectives that help to unpack the broader questions and abstract concepts raised in Chapter 1.  The first perspective is historical.  Park argues that individuals understand history less through the ubiquitous macro narratives written by scholars and more through the lenses of their own unique experiences.  The second perspective is spatial.  Multi-layeredness, as Park calls it, refers to the complexity of the identities and footings within which individual lives are embedded.  With these temporal and spatial complexities in mind, Park offers a number of contrasting sketches of illiteracy and urban poverty in Korea.  Though the cases highlight phenomena quite common to rapid industrialization and urbanization, each individual interviewee understands his disadvantaged positions quite uniquely and according to his various experiences and social embedded perspectives.  Park uses these sketches to demonstrate the mechanisms generating significant variation in the individual-level phenomenology of macro-level ontologies.

Chapters 3 and 4 present Park’s core research and findings on the life experiences of political activists to challenge the taken-for-grantedness of conventional frameworks of political ideology and activist repertoires.  What makes one a progressive and what constitutes “progressive-like” behaviors?  Park’s subjects, once student activists involved in Korea’s democracy movement, are now engaged in various kinds of community activism.  Echoing his original quandary, Park wonders what historical circumstances led “community activism [to emerge] as the left” and “certain leftist activists [to emerge] on the plane of community politics (p. 75).”  All three subjects cite childhood experiences witnessing social injustices as informal stimuli of their future political dispositions.  Park also notes that student associations and night schools played a formative role both in their initial education as activists, but also as networks extending into their professional years.  At some point after their college years, all of Park’s subjects found themselves looking for work and not knowing where to turn.  They each learned about job opportunities and political campaign work through their former student activist networks.  These initial opportunities then triggered a cascade of further opportunities, such as running for local office, serving as local council members, and participating in various forms of community activism.  In spite of the link between their earlier student activism and their present trajectories, none of the subjects had necessarily planned to make a career of political activism after their college years, in part because they faced the economic reality of needing to earn money and make a living.  Thus it was by happenstance that their college activism led to careers as professional activists; moreover the type and political orientation of the student organizations that they would enter during their college years also affected what types of opportunities they would come to affiliate with in their later years.  It is precisely these structural factors at the micro-level, namely the demands of earning a livelihood as well as the unforeseen influences and effects of each subject’s student network, which bridged student activism to community activism.  This complex web of multilayered factors supports Park’s critique of any macro social narrative that would attribute progressive activism to activists’ ideological opposition to state-sponsored neoliberal development.

Where Chapter 3 explores each subject’s pathway to their current activities, Chapter 4 delves into the repertoires employed by these and other “progressive” community activists at the local level.  In Chapter 4, Park takes up another interesting puzzle that is related to his primary inquiry about the halt of the progressive movement in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.  This second puzzle asks why democratic transition in Korea did not lead to rational developments of civil society, as theorized by Western political sociology.  With this inquiry, we again sense Park’s deeper theoretical agenda of questioning the assumed meanings of and relationships between macro social constructs such as democratic transition and civil society.  To answer this question Park returns to the actions and repertoires of his subjects, in particular the repertoires they employ in political campaigns.  Here Park also finds that it is not the liberal democratic ideal of electing reform-minded politicians that drove “progressive” campaigns on the ground but a number of far more complex, multilayered structural factors.  Among these included employment-seeking, opportunism, and network expansion.  To achieve these ends, local politicians build social ties, maximize influence by constraining progressive candidates to one per district, and interact and negotiate with both the public and opposition candidates.  Park’s description of the relationship between elections and politics resembles a performance dance.  Political platforms are shaped amid elections in order to engage local issues and garner local support.  Successful election bids reinforce winning platforms; failed bids result in new political processes.  In this sense, the career paths of Park’s subjects, from student activists, to community activists, to local council members and so on may be viewed as a succession of steps in a spontaneous performance where each dancer may have a distinct orientation towards certain types of maneuvers and partners, but by no means have choreographed their moves from start to finish.

Returning to the discussion of macro social constructs, Chapter 5 reengages with the Post-Marxist and radical democratic theories of Laclau, Mouffe, and Tajbkhsh.  Park’s examination of “progressive” community activists in Seoul echoes Tajbkhsh’s critique of Marxist theories that pay too much attention to discourse and theory and are not rooted in empirical experience. Park’s analysis of the dynamic formation of political platforms during democratic elections could also be interpreted as support of Laclau and Moffe’s new direction for socialist mobilization against capitalist institutions that centers not only on those whose labor is bound up in capitalist production, but also those groups that are marginalized and excluded from the capitalist economy.  In order to take these multiple groups and interests into consideration, conventional models of state-society or liberal welfare state must be expanded.  In Korea, Park explains, the state-society dichotomy has given rise to a political discourse pitting state-driven development against society-oriented democracy.  This model has framed conservative-progressive identities in Korea while simultaneously obscuring the individual experiences and network dynamics at the local level.  Accordingly, the conventional notion of progressivism fails to explain the emergence of community activism and local progressive repertoires in Seoul at the historical conjunction of democratization and neo-liberal globalization.  In Korea, where ruling party politics came to be synonymous with managing state-sponsored economic mobilization, progressive activism at the local level came to help both those working in, as well as those marginalized by, the growth machines of the new economy.  This historical link demonstrates community activism’s connection to the earlier democracy movement and its continued relevance to discursive reconfigurations of politics, in ways predicted by Post-Marxist theory.

Jacob Reidhead
Department of Sociology
Stanford University
reidhead@stanford.edu

Primary Sources
Interviews

Dissertation Information
University of Oregon. 2013. 258pp. Primary Advisor: Greg McLauchlan.

Image: Painting drawn to protest an urban renewal project in Mapo District, Seoul, South Korea. Photo by Kwang-Hyung Park, 2009.

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