[Viewpoint] A very dangerous movement

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[Viewpoint] A very dangerous movement

The world is roiling with mass movements. Protests against autocratic regimes fill the Arab streets and the anti-super-rich Occupy Wall Street crowds have moved into lower Manhattan and other American cities. The first is a revolt against political despots and the second against the greedy, too-big-to-fall financial oligarchs.

The world’s history has evolved through popular rebellions. Mass movements brew and erupt from waves of energy within when the mainstream, or surface system, moves in a different direction from the velocity of reality. When these movements overturn an existing order, they amount to revolution. When they are finally absorbed, the world often evolves for the better.

Any movement, in order to be sustained, must evolve enough to be established as a system. Civilization is synonymous with systematization. Religion, which in theory must be isolated from the secular order, inevitably had to be systematized. But anything that gets systematized inevitably needs to establish a hierarchical order. Once within a framework, an establishment becomes slow in responding to changes in reality. This is why revolutions are attempted endlessly.

The surprising events leading up to the Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election can be regarded as an extraordinary shift in the faults of mainstream politics. The energy came from subterranean distrust of and frustration with the political system. The main opposition Democratic Party was the first to feel the ground shake. A party with more than a half century of history, with more than a hundred representatives in the National Assembly, was humbled by a practically unknown political novice. Its defeat in the primary to select a single liberal candidate for the mayoral by-election was, more or less, a harbinger of the collapse of the DP and our political system.

Mainstream politics and its practitioners have now become laughing stocks. Many say they had it coming. Both ruling and opposition politicians had become overindulgent, comfortably enjoying the luxuries of power. They ganged up on newcomers, were blinkered to reality and clung to their old-school practices. The liberals sang arias about welfare benefits while the conservatives did the drumbeat of anti-North Korea warnings to win votes. They wrapped themselves up so tightly with their old ideas and gimmicks that they failed to sense the tremors from real world.

The hollowness of our parties can be traced to their pasts. The Grand National Party was created to justify and enforce the existing powers that were. It had no connection to, or interest in, grass-root affairs. It was a party of people primarily immersed in their own ambitions and power. The Democratic Party, for its part, was a weakling from birth. Despite the history of a two-party system, strictly speaking, Korea always had a majority ruling party jousting with a gaggle of opposition forces.

The opposition, therefore, relied on more radical dissident forces. In the anti-autocracy and democratization movements, dissidents were at the forefront, and the opposition politicians waved from the back of the pack. They ended up doing nothing. As result, they have been abandoned.

I have more faith in the system than in a movement. Movements do not last, while political parties ensure continuity. No matter how wonderful the purpose of a movement is, it cannot make a difference if it does not evolve into a system. It is like a cherry bomb, leaving smoke and a mess behind. Mass movements can raise a spark, but someone has to keep the fire burning.

A political party can be defined and its policy direction set, but an action led by a mob, however well intentioned, is unpredictable. The DP erred in inviting a candidate who represents an indeterminable group of civilians to its primary. It should have staged a contest among its members or should have made the contender become a party member to qualify for the primary. That is what a responsible political party would have done.

I also have more faith in the system than an individual. Even the best man cannot beat the system. We established systems because a single man cannot be entirely trusted. Democratization is the systematization of democracy. Autocracy is born when power is centralized in an individual. Systems have evolved over history, reshaped by various waves and storms. We may not like them, but political parties have evolved and lasted through the history of this country. If the parties fall, so will our democratic system.

The Seoul mayoral by-election will be a contest between the system and a movement. The trend will probably continue in the next parliamentary and presidential elections. The upcoming by-election could serve as a tipping point.

It remains to be seen whether the political party system can continue to exist - or whether the parties will abandon us to totally unpredictable movements and the people who whip them up.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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