SURVIVING CAPITALISM

Introduction to the Korean edition
Erik Ringmar
This book was written as a means of dealing with my own ambivalence regarding the nature of capitalism. On the one hand, capitalism unleashes unprecedented creative powers and provides the best chance we have of developing our countries and bringing prosperity, education, health-care and other good things to a larger number of people than ever before. On the other hand, capitalism unleashes destructive powers that undermine social relations and put a price on everything we value — including other human beings, our own bodies and ultimately our own selves. Marx was wrong and Marx was right, and so were a whole slew of other critics both on the political left and among traditional conservatives. I wrote this book since I wanted to separate the positive effects from the negative, and come to some sort of an overall conclusion. Yet, as I soon discovered, my own value judgments are far less interesting than the way society itself reacts to these contradictions. Society as a whole is always smarter than any individual taken alone, and the contradictions I proudly started enumerating had been discovered by social actors a long time ago. People have always, intuitively, known what the problems are with capitalism and they have always, quite automatically, sought to protect themselves against them. It is inhuman to reduce everything to a commodity that is exchanged for a price, but realizing this we humans have come up with a range of protective responses. This is not, in the end, a matter of left-wing or right-wing politics, but instead a matter of rescuing the values that all human beings cherish, regardless of their political

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positions. Bankers and industrialists must protect themselves against the effects of capitalism just as much as workers and office-clerks. And we do. We insist on the value of human relations and refuse to give them a price; we bar certain economic exchanges — we don’t sell children, for examples, religious salvation or academic degrees; and we insist on the dignity of ourselves and the people we love. So this is what this book came to take as its subject: the way human beings in different places have overcome the negative consequences of capitalism while trying to reap the benefits of the positive consequences. These protective responses, I concluded, operate on three distinct levels: they can be undertaken by the state, by civil society or families. Depending on how the protective response is formulated the consequences will vary. The state protects us in a different way than civil society or our families. In the end, how a society responds depends on the cultural resources at its disposal. In some societies the state has traditionally been more important, while in other societies civil organizations and families have mattered more — and of course states, civil organizations and families vary from one country to the other. As a result, the responses to capitalism will differ. While we try to benefit from capitalism in the same way, we protect ourselves from it quite differently. This way of thinking about capitalist development provides a new way of thinking about globalization. It is sometimes argued that the global reach of economic markets remakes us all in its image and imposes homogeneous standards on us all. That this tendency exists is without doubt, but what this book documents is the opposite tendency — the persistence of traditional social patterns, not in opposition to capitalist development, but as a consequence of it. Drawing on the cultural resource of society, the argument will be, traditions are constantly invented and recreated. The more modern society becomes, in other words, the more traditional it looks, at least in certain key respects. This is a contradiction to be sure, but it is 2

easily documented with historical examples drawn both from Europe and East Asia, and this book explains why this result can be expected. To me, at least, this is a hopeful conclusion — there is value in diversity; heterogeneity makes us richer and homogeneity makes us poorer. I don’t want all societies to become the same, and the argument of this book is correct, this is unlikely to happen. Overall, however, I am quite pessimistic. Although we all need protection against the negative consequences of capitalism, we are not all in the same position to protect ourselves. In some countries some responses are unavailable or even illegal. In China, for example, the ability of families to provide comfort and sustenance to its members is limited by the fact that families, by law, are limited to one child. Birth-rates are going down in other developed societies too of course, but the consequences of a one-child policy are likely to be particularly harsh in a society where the family traditionally provides by far the most effective safety-net. Or take the case of the United States where political traditions, reinforced by vociferous propaganda from the fundamentalist right, effectively has made it impossible for the state to provide any form of protective responses. People are forced to fall back on their families — but American families are famously dysfunctional — or, in many cases, on their religious organizations. Not surprisingly, Americans are by far the most religious of all people in the developed world. God might not exist, but he still provides a good reason for people to get together. In addition, as always, it is obvious that the availability of protective responses varies depending on social class. Everything else equal, the richer and more educated we are, the better we are at protecting ourselves; the poorer and less educated, the more exposed we will be to market forces. People with money and time can indulge themselves in authentic experiences together with their family members, maintain their friendships and cultivate their selves; people without 3

money and time are too busy working, or too tired after work, to properly look after either families or social networks. We settle for poor, commercial, substitutes — we flop ourselves in front of TV sets and computers, drink too much or do drugs, or just quietly go crazy. If the argument of this book is correct, this is an untenable situation. Although humans are extraordinarily resilient, we will eventually react against the inhuman conditions under which we live. There is revolutionary potential here, but not a revolution as Karl Marx and the other revolutionaries envisioned it. The point can never be to replace capitalism with something else. This has been tried and it doesn’t work. Communism is not an improvement, but a far inferior system. There are no alternatives to capitalist development. The revolution will instead concern ways in which capitalism can be made compatible with sociability, community, friendship, love, and everything else that makes our lives distinctly human. In the end, capitalism must serve society and not the other way around. There is no other way. And the revolution, when it comes, will restore that necessary order. Here too, however, there are reasons for pessimism. One problem is that the reordering of the relationship between markets and society might be indefinitely postponed. The resilience of human beings means that we often uncomplainingly go on and make a living for ourselves even where we long ago should have rebelled. Moreover, we are often easily manipulated by political and other leaders who identify false enemies and direct our energies towards the wrong goals. As a result, the situation will have to get substantially worse before it starts to get substantially better. Considering the damage capitalism already is doing to many societies and many individual lives, this is a troubling prospect. Another problem is that revolutions can go wrong in so many ways. Communist revolutions, we said, provide no solution, but nationalistic or religious revolutions are if anything worse. Communities can be recreated on the basis of hatred as well as friendship, and 4

often the friendship within the community is taken to require hatred of outsiders. Moreover, any social upheaval, of any kind, is more likely than not to create confusion, new animosities and more strife. Instead what is needed, it seems to me, is something like a conservative revolution. We need to stand up for our right to conserve our ways of life, the identities we have created and the relationships we value. We must insist on our right to feel at home in the world; on the value of this place and of these particular people; on a life with roots and not just branches; of a core and not just surfaces. But if the argument of this book is correct, this revolution will take place quite naturally and automatically. This, after all, is how human being always must live and sooner or later we will. The actions required to assure this end will appear revolutionary only to those who believe that markets have no bounds and capitalism no limits. This book draws quite extensively from East Asian examples — Japan, China and Thailand in particular. East Asia is interesting since this is a part of the world which capitalism during the last couple of decades most ferociously has transformed. The question is how, if at all, East Asian traditions have stood up under this pressure. How have East Asian societies benefited from capitalism, how have they suffered, and how have they protected themselves? Now that the book is appearing in a Korean translation I am of course embarrassed that I did not discuss Korean examples in more detail in the text. This is simply a consequence of my own limited knowledge. I have lived in Japan and Thailand, and now I’m living in Shanghai, China. I have visited Korea several times and I have had many outstanding Korean students, but I can speak comfortably only about the places I know. As a result I must ask you to apply my argument to the Korean case by yourself. Indeed such an application seems particularly urgent. After all, Korean economic development has been exceptional and the economic success of the 5

country is the wonder of the world. What I want you to tell me is how Korean society has benefited from capitalism, how Korean society has protected itself from its negative consequences, but also, and above all, which struggles that remain. In too many other East Asian societies capitalism has been received as a pure blessing — ironically old-style Communist states like China and Vietnam provide the best illustrations. Here capitalism has been equated with development and with modernity, and the only question has been how to open all aspects of social life to the interplay of market forces as quickly as possible. That there are problems associated with this radical experiment is less often acknowledged. As a result everything is sacrificed in the name of capitalism. The result is not only unjust but ultimately unsustainable. South Korea, it seems to me, while supremely successful in economic terms, has been more skeptical of capitalism’s blessings, and as a result Korean society is in a far better position. One reflection of this is the substantial role the Korean state has played in encouraging economic development while actively mitigating its negative consequences. Another reflection is the larger role played by Korean civil society. South Koreans — young people in particular — have been politically active like no other people throughout East Asia, protesting against injustices and pressing for change. From this perspective it is ironic that the state and civil society in South Korea often have been enemies of each other. There are good political reasons for these confrontations to be sure, and yet perhaps both the state and civil society in Korea express versions of the same wisdom. Koreans seem to me to be better prepared to survive capitalism than other people in East Asia. But then again I may be wrong. As I said, there is a lot I don’t know about South Korea. You should read the book and make up your own mind.

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