Monday, October 31, 2005

The DLP loss, Elvis and the right

Kotaji has a short post up on the Democratic Labour Party's (DLP) recent by-election loss in the working class city of Ulsan that is worth reading. He makes the point that perhaps the growing number of non-regular and low wage workers there as well as the recent corruption scandals with the nation's two large labour federations may have something to do with this.

A Korea Times article focusing on the loss quotes DLP representative Sim Sang-Jung :

We should have paid more attention to the livelihood of non-regular workers and low-income earners in Ulsan, instead of focusing too much on the unionized workers of the big plant... Something unimaginable just took place in Ulsan, which is practically the land of laborers... The defeat is feared to seriously hurt the party and its leadership.

It should be pointed out that there have been strong efforts to regularize non-regular workers and fight for wage increases by the local, militant unions in Korea, and these struggles have been faily militant and puntuated with strong violence from the state, not to mention the protest-suicides of workers. However, the government continues to push for more and more labor flexibility in an economy that has some of the highest levels of subcontracting out there to the point that some workers have trouble identifying who indeed they are producing for or indeed who really owns their company -- there are lots of case of chaebol ownshership of smaller firms through dummy corporations or partial ownership and the like.

One wonders, in fact, if the ranks of younger, casual and non-regular workers, are following a trajectory similar to what has been happening in recent years in Japan, with younger people of this sort voting for the rhetoric of the right as they've become dis-illusioned with the potential of the left. I'm not exactly sure what current demographics are like in Ulsan but it would be interesting to see if there are indeed parrallels to generation of temps, freeters, and casual workers that Gavin Mccormack discusses in his recent article on the Koizumi election, postal reform and decline of Japan's developmental/welfare state -- worth reading if only for the picture of Koizumi's album of his favorite Elvis songs for karaoke.

Ok, I couldn't resist posting it, but, humor aside, Mccormack makes the point that Koizumi developed a rhetoric full of fun sound bytes and other publicity stunts that appeals to this youthful voters as it distances him from the culturally conservative image of his party, while promising to undertake 'reform.' Coincidentally, the only thing that he is reforming are the institutions that created a fairly equal distribution of work and weath in the post war years. Thus, appealing to images of 'cool' from the very generation cut off from economic equality, he secures the conditions to erode further these mechanisms of redistribution.

This issue is too complex to explore in this short post, especially in the Korean context so I'll only hazard a few more comments; namely, that I think its too early to attribute this loss to a growing depolitized electorate, but nonetheless I do think it is important to think about what the potential tendencies of a generation of workers lacking clear employment status and disciplined by retrenchment, restructurturing, and the vagarity of the market can or will be. Perhaps to do this we should look a bit more at how the GOP appealed to these voters (last time I checked the GOP weren't so 'cool,' but maybe they are), the development of working class youth culture in Korea (which doesn't seem as differentiated in Korea as it is in Japan at the moment), and, perhaps, how the DLP articulates itself in the context of the previous two.

1 comment:

  1. You beat me to the Gavan McCormack article... I think I'll still post a brief excerpt from it though.

    What you were saying about how neo-liberal restructuring may affect workers as political agents reminded me of what David Harvey has been arguing. I think it's in his new book but I haven't got a copy yet (just heard him speak). Anyway, he argues that the very nature of neo-liberal restructuring helps to further erode the worker organisation and effective democracy that might be able to counteract it. Thus a vicious cycle is set up.

    In a way it seems like capitalism reaching a new and higher level of alienation that it achieved before.