[Viewpoint] Macro view of polarization

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[Viewpoint] Macro view of polarization

‘Events are dust,” French historian Fernand Braudel said. In his studies of social times, Braudel argued that there were short-, medium- and long-term time scales. He argued that a history of events is the short span, the medium term covers the history of society and the long term is the history of structures, he argued.

For him, an event is too trivial, just like dust.

Braudel’s argument brings to mind the plurality of time scales in Korea’s recent domestic politics. By applying his theoretical framework, the first half of this year is filled with events, and the question “What is politics?” was asked on numerous occasions. The government exists, but it was not trusted. The National Assembly exists, but it failed to function.

It’s fair to say politics here has been in a crisis since the 2006 local elections. While the government and ruling party possess political decision-making power, the opposition has the potential to sway public opinion. Instability is the reality of Korea’s politics.

In order to govern the nation in a flexible way, the approval rating should be more than at least 40 percent, but both the Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak administrations have failed to overcome the perennial problem of low popularity.

Political and societal majorities rise and fall over time, but events often shake up the whole of society and fierce debates strengthen political battle lines.

One of the reasons for this is the Korean public pays a great deal of attention to politics, and passionate support can quickly morph into intense feelings of disillusionment.

Another factor is that the politics of conjuncture might get overlooked if people pay too much attention to the politics of events.

The current politics of conjuncture in Korea can be defined as the “politics of polarization.” In terms of the history of conjuncture, the greatest challenge facing Korean politics is how to counter polarization prompted by globalization.

Since the economic crisis last fall, neoliberal globalization has entered a period of adjustment. Whether we agree with its principles or not, polarization has become extreme and is restructuring society.

Two indexes are relevant here. First is the May 26 survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs on the working poor, people defined as poor but who have jobs. According to data collected, the number of working poor is expected to grow from 1.79 million to 2.42 million this year, about 55 percent more than the 2007 figure of 1.56 million.

Second is data released on May 30 by the National Statistical Office. According to the report, the average monthly household income for the bottom 20 percent during the first quarter of this year was 855,900 won ($667), down by 5.1 percent from last year. In contrast, the average monthly income of the top 20 percent was 7.43 million won, up by 1.1 percent.

As a result, the ratio of first to fifth quintile earnings, which was 8.41 during the first quarter of last year, has risen to 8.68 during the first quarter of this year. The figure is the highest since the statistics were first recorded in 2003.

I believe the greatest challenge for Korea’s politics now is designing an immediate resolution to the polarization problem. The resolution is urgent because we can no longer ignore the working poor, who depend on loans to make ends meet every month, and small businesses about to shut down due to growing losses.

The resolution should reach to the heart of the problem because one of the reasons for the recent polarization of wealth is globalization. Society must have a long-term consensus on what kind of globalization is appropriate for Korea.

People paying attention to the history of events point out that the unity of the nation has reached a critical juncture. And yet a more serious crisis than the political one stemming from the ideological divide is the crisis of economic unity resulting from polarization.

The middle class will become the poor, and the poor will become poorer.

Under such a situation, no resolution for the ideological and political divide will bring about a substantial, meaningful outcome.

Braudel’s argument that events are dust is exaggerated. However, it is undeniable that events lie at a critical conjuncture.

What we need most urgently is the wisdom to pay attention to the current conjuncture of crises, rather than obsessing over events.

*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Ho-ki
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