Elevate Difference

South Koreans in the Debt Crisis: The Creation of a Neoliberal Welfare Society

Having recently read Marxist scholar David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism, I was eager to dig into Jesook Song's explanation of how her own nation became a case study for the neoliberal state. Amid a worldwide economic crisis, now seems a fine time to explore the assumptions underpinning global capitalism. Harvey argues that neoliberalism, disguised as the liberation of populations and markets, is actually a reassertion of class power that redistributes wealth into the hands of an elite few. Yet how elites could perpetrate such a coup in the class war, with so little opposition, is difficult to demonstrate at a global level. Enter Song, an ethnographer who explicates the unique culture of South Korea, showing how neoliberalism took hold and developed in one exemplary country.

Neoliberalism took root in the late 1970s as a response to stagnant economies. In contrast to planned economies controlled by (often despotic) states, liberalization encouraged deregulation and the growth of financial rather than industrial capital, while discouraging collective activities like labor unions through a cult of personal choice and identity politics. As Song explains, South Korea first experienced government liberalization after thirty years of military dictatorship, and then economic liberalization through International Monetary Fund (IMF)-mandated restructuring and break-up of large conglomerates. After the Asian Debt Crisis of 1997, Song explores how neoliberal, free-market ideology combined with existing Korean concepts of family and gender as well as civil society movements. Strange bedfellows—activists, scholars, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—cooperated with the new liberal government in the delineation of deserving (those willing and able to sell their labor) from undeserving (those who cannot or do not), in the new welfare state. Song focuses primarily on the treatment of two demographics: unemployed youth and the homeless.

In Seoul in the wake of the debt crisis, Song worked in a public works program to assist shaping unemployment policy; there she was able to meet and interview city officials, scholars, NGO members, activists, and homeless and unemployed people themselves. These interviews are often illuminating. One city official clearly differentiated two categories: "IMF homeless are people who came to be homeless due to layoffs after the IMF crisis. They are normal people, not 'rootless vagabonds.' They have the intention to rehabilitate and the desire to work." One type of homeless person was normalized—a worker laid-off from the break-up of the conglomerates that had once provided job security and benefits—while others were marginalized. Women, not considered breadwinners, typically became homeless for reasons like domestic violence, not unemployment. Homeless women and their advocates either had to fit them into the script of a work-ready neoliberal subject, or give up even temporary assistance. Similarly, unemployed youth who received assistance were expected to be (paradoxically) self-sufficient and self-governing entrepreneurs. In the new economy based on finance and technology rather than industry, educated youth became commodities themselves, expected to sell their flexible labor and technical know-how.

Combining Marxist class theory and Michael Foucault's concept of governance, Song's analysis in South Koreans in the Debt Crisis_ _is densely academic; she wisely reviews key points at the beginning and end of each chapter. A larger weakness is the presentation of data. Much of the supporting evidence feels idiosyncratic—interviews, the summary of novels and popular movies, officials' speeches. While no doubt all of these are vehicles for ideology, they are not enough bricks to lay a solid foundation for Song's thesis of how NGOs, activists, and scholars were co-opted into the neoliberal project. This is disappointing, as her arguments make intuitive sense, and her critique of (neo)liberalism is timely, particularly for those of us who make activism and scholarship our lives.

Written by: Charlotte Malerich, December 14th 2009