[Outlook]A two-tier trap
The new year has dawned, yet we do not seem ready to greet it. Our society is beset by a general feeling of helplessness. Of course, the economic crisis must be the main reason. Some of my friends have already retired and many of my pupils have no plans for getting a job, even though they will soon be graduating.
But when I think about the situation a little more deeply, I can’t believe that the economic crisis is the sole reason for our angst. Politics, society and even culture are being haunted by forces that can’t be identified, and people feel powerless.
Impatience can also be added to this collective feeling of emptiness. On Internet portals and Web sites of newspapers and broadcasters, people are confronting one another on nearly every issue. It feels like we are in the middle of a battlefield, minus the gunshots. When meeting friends or colleagues, we find ourselves having serious, angry debates on random issues, and part in the end feeling slightly embarrassed.
What went wrong? The empty, powerless feeling and the impatience seem to have begun in the closing stages of the former Roh Moo-hyun administration. When nearly two-thirds of the people stop supporting any given administration, the public tends to lose faith in government policies. When a low approval rating becomes the norm, the people feel helpless and enraged.
A vicious circle is then created. The disliked government hastily presents unripe policies and enacts them in a similar manner, not paying enough attention to whether the people agree or not. As a result, even more criticism is aroused.
In this process, the powerful appear even more arrogant than usual, and the desire grows among the people to punish them. As the government took office by winning an election, it believes that it has been entrusted with power. But people don’t think the process of granting power ends when the election does. They continuously evaluate the government’s policies. A crisis of legitimacy arises.
The people put the Lee Myung-bak administration in office last year in a bid to punish the former Roh government. Astonishingly, the Lee team has followed in the footsteps of the former administration over the past year. Just as the Roh administration did in the past, the Lee government faces a dilemma of delegative democracy, a political system that is heavily dependent on the country’s top political leader.
On top of this, since the time of the presidential transition team, raw neoliberal policies have been pumped out. That created many battle lines in the political community and civil society, splitting things in two - the haves and the have-nots.
The worsening economic crisis is making us realize once again that the economy is a big problem. But at the same time, we understand that politics is an even more serious issue. A crisis in the political realm and a failure to calm the economic turmoil is the essence of the current crisis. In short, our society is caught in a two-tier trap, with the political turmoil combining with the economic crisis on one level, and the leadership issues and party politics on the other.
Fears for the economy give rise to collective helplessness, and anxiety caused by the political crisis gives rise to collective impatience. In order to overcome the economic crisis, a political control tower from which the issue can be managed and solutions can be presented is more important than ever. In the presidential system, the president and the administration must run such an emergency organization. That is also why many people still hold out hope for the Lee administration’s leadership, even though they are deeply disappointed. In this regard, one can only conclude that the leadership is vital for both inspiring the people and getting us out of this hole.
The Lee administration has announced that it would create an emergency war room to deal with the economic strife. The question is where this organization’s focus should lie. Innovation and integration must be of great importance. The former is key to overcoming the economic crisis, while integration is vital in dealing with the political crisis. Economic reform based on social integration is the biggest task given to the Lee administration, which has to prepare for its remaining years in office.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Kim Ho-ki