A few weeks ago, my friend Seong (he’s from Korea), told me about the effects of Globalization on South Korean farmers. With cheap beef flooding into the country, farmers have been unable to sell their cattle, and unable to pay for feed. Cattle could be heard crying as they starved to death. This naturally destroyed a lot of farmers’ spirits as well.
Here is a section of an academic essay he’s written, as a proposal to study the textbooks of Korea for bias toward Globalization and its underlying political ideology. I’m going to highlight some passages I found particularly striking. People in the Occupy Movement may especially find this interesting.
It is November 21, 1997, the day when South Korea accepted the terms of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout precipitated by a lack of U.S. dollars. Under the condition of carrying out full-scale restructuring, the country acquired a 570 billion dollar relief loan from the IMF, which was an unparalleled amount in the institution’s history. In order to pay the debt, the Korean government had to take on the unfettered free markets and minimum intervention of the government with it. The opening of commodity and capital market, privatization of public enterprises, and flexibility of labor market was advertised as “global standards” to citizens.
The “IMF crisis” appeared as unprecedented socioeconomic chaos. South Korean people who lived through the period became familiar with new phrases such as “IMF homeless”, “family breakdown,” and “unemployed person with higher education”.
Much concern focused on the concentration of more wealth in the hands of a few people. In 2009 the upper 20% of South Koreans’ average annual income was approximately about $90,200 and that of lower 20% was $1,990, compared with the former’s $58,290 and the latter’s $3,060 in 1999(C. G. Gang, 2011). This is a significant change in income distribution. The rate of irregular workers has abruptly grown who get paid minimum wages of C$3.80/hour with about the same cost of living in Canada and are subjected to layoff. In fact, it passed 50% of all employees in 2001 in South Korea (J. S. Jo, 2003) where in the past, life time employment was guaranteed and most university students could find work as soon as they graduated. Of all university graduates from 2004 to 2011, 50% do not have full time jobs (J. H. Choi, 2011). Nowadays Koreans are avowedly referring to themselves as “working poor” who can’t escape poverty, no matter how hard they try. Without hope to lean on, Korea’s suicide rate has led the OECD countries since 1998 (H. H. Kim, 2008). This is what happened in the country which had been dubbed as one of the Four Asian Tigers, or the emerging economic power houses.
One might question how such turmoil could occur when South Korea just agreed to the conditions imposed by IMF in hopes of economic recovery and averting emergency? Simply mistaking the crisis as another adjusting of rule only within an economic realm, South Korea actually has subsumed by economic rationality which has swept over the societal sphere. Indeed, this is the destructive result of restructuring by neoliberalism.
Dumenil & Levy (2005, pp. 9-19) label neoliberalism as “counter revolution” against the trend of class compromise and decommodification after World War II. Especially, they provide that neoliberalism is a project to restore upper class power. Looking at the statistics of the U.S. and Europe before the 1970s, the total wealth of the wealthiest one percent of households was 35% of the total wealth of those countries (p. 11). This ratio decreased to 20% in the 1970s and rose again in the 1980s. The crisis of capital accumulation in the 1970s would have affected the income and wealth of the upper class, but the fact that their proportion of wealth has increased rapidly after the 1979 neoliberalism transition started suggests that neoliberalism is “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (Harvey, 2005, p. 19).
There is another perspective seeing neoliberalism through existentialism. Sennet (1998) tells the stories of workers whose identities are also challenged by the inconsistencies in the workplace. Because of neoliberal structure in the economy, workers find themselves drifting from one job to the next and confused about their identity. He documents how they deal with the risks they must take and become familiar with failure. Likewise, neoliberalism is, according to Bourdieu (1998, p.107), an ideology of the forces of historical restoration, a form of conservative revolution whose actors want to sink and dissolve all relationships and institutions of solidarity among people. He argues that this ideology declaratively refers to human rights and liberties while, in truth, it foregrounds the interests of the mega capital forces, of transnational corporations; besides, it is in function of their domination and hegemony at present.
Foucault (2006) hypothesizes neoliberalism as a form of governing technology on people. According to Ong’s (2006)’s interpretation, neoliberalism is merely the most recent development of such techniques that govern human life, that is, a governmentality that relies on market knowledge and calculations for a politics of subjection and subject-making that continually places in question the political existence of modern human beings (p. 13).
The radical liberalism expands its market-oriented mechanism to overall social realms such as the cutting of public expenditure for social services like education and health care, reducing the safety net for the poor, and even the maintenance of roads, bridges, and water supply all in the name of reducing the government’s role. It renders the concept of the public to be subservient to the needs of capitalism. This advanced liberalism eradicates the concept of the public good and a sense of community and replaces them with individual responsibility, wherein it asks the poorest people in a society to find solutions all by themselves to their lack of health care, education and social security. What happens to them is their own fault, never the fault of society.
Thus, the main points of neoliberalism include the following: first, the rule of the market establishes no binds imposed by the government to private enterprises, no labor unions, no price control, and total freedom for capital, goods, and services. This implies that an unregulated market is the best way to increase economic growth, which will ultimately benefit everyone. Next is deregulation and cutting public expenditure for social services. This is meant also for loosening state control and for maximizing profits. Thirdly, privatization happens. In order to achieve greater efficiency, all enterprises, goods and services should be owned privately.
Lastly is individual responsibility. Each individual is held completely responsible for his/her success in managing the small-scale self-enterprise. Supporting the lack of state intervention in the processes of the market, neoliberals see the laws of free market applying from the national level to the individual one. Countries, regions, and cities are expected to be virtual corporations, ‘selling’ themselves as investment locations, while every person becomes an entrepreneur, managing his/her own life in order to maximize their advantages on the labor market.
The effect of this on society, borrowing from Wilkins and Pickett (2010), is that “Instead of a better society, the only thing that almost everyone strives for is to better their own position – as individuals – within the existing society” (p. 4). The distinctive character between classical liberalism and the advanced liberalism is the ways in which they can influence the development of a new type of citizen, one who is self-reliant and who puts individual interests above the collective interests. It influences individuals to strive for their own needs, wants, and ambitions.
Hence, of all these qualities of neoliberalism, one key concept eventually stands out; this is the notion of competition between nations, regions, firms and, of course, between individuals. Not only what is traditionally considered ‘business’ is to be applied by the market, all aspects of society are organized under the same logic: education, culture, health care, even the private life of a person is aimed at getting a better grade in regard to usefulness. In this way, only the best individuals will survive on the market. They will prove maximum efficiency. They will achieve profit. In a neoliberalized world, because competition is always a virtue, its results cannot be bad. It is supposed to allocate all resources, whether physical, natural, human or financial with the greatest possible efficiency. Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979, undertook the neoliberal revolution in Britain and remarked “It is our job to glory in inequality and see that talents and abilities are given vent and expression for the benefit of us all” (George, 1997, p.48).
The economic term of competitiveness then comes to refer to the character or nature of citizen who is deemed as a worthy, or an economic resource. The dictatorship of coercive competition, which is capital’s inner nature and essential characteristic, acts as the mechanism to force change in social relations and compels to regulate behavioral assumptions and institutional realities, all in hopes of increasing profitability (O’Connor, 2003).
Burr’s (1995) view of individualization resulting from societal discourse is evidenced in the following: “…prevailing discourse of ‘the individual’ paint a picture of human beings as separate, disconnected units ‘naturally’ differing from each other in terms of their motivations, talents, intelligence, determination, and so on..”(p. 36). These versions of individuality are all certain versions of truth. The issue then becomes whose truth is valued by society and whose is not. What are the political underpinnings and whose agenda is being served by supporting ‘truths’? This is not to say these discourses should not be challenged. It is indeed imperative to question “by whose criteria?”(p. 38).
And so ends the first sections of Seong’s report. I included the last paragraph because it’s important to remember that many people who oppose changes to our economic system that is heavily weighted in favour of the super wealthy, do so with the backing of “economic truths”. Obviously, if things are done in the way they are now, they work, to a certain extent, and to a certain goal. The question that must be asked every time is, “by whose criteria does this particular truth serve?” Keeping the exact same economic thinking is proven to make the rich very rich, and the middle class poorer. While individuals prosper (or suffer), society stagnates as it is deemed to already be perfect. Feminism, capitalism, environmentalism, WWII, science, they’ve already fixed what is wrong with society, so why are you complaining?