On September 24th 2013, The Korean (TK) wrote in his blog, Ask a Korean, about his disagreement with Daniel Tudor’s hypothesis in his book,“Korea: The Impossible Country,” that many of Korea’s problems can be traced back to Confucianism.
It is true that Confucianism, or whatever modern version of Confucianism that still remains, has been turned into everyone’s favorite punching bag when analyzing Korea. Though Confucianism has many faults of its own (many of which can be found here), blaming Confucianism for many of modern-day Korea’s problems is akin to blaming Puritanism for many of modern-day America’s problems. Though it is true that much of Korean norms are still run according to Confucian ideals, albeit in increasingly diluted doses, Korean society has changed so much, especially since the 1950s, that blaming “Confucianism” for Korea’s societal ills just seems quaint.
It was difficult to disagree with TK until this point. From that point on, however, TK’s position that Korea’s problems are caused by modernity is nothing short of asinine.
Although TK says that it is important not to idealize the past by bringing up the fact that Korea’s historical caste system and patriarchal values hardly made pre-modern Korea a Utopian society, it quickly becomes evident that this is nothing more than cheap lip service as he then immediately says:
“But it is hard to deny that traditional Korea has certain charms that modern Korea lacks. There was no constant competition or striving that stressed people out – simply people efficiently doing what they had to do to produce more than what they needed, and enjoying their lives in the free time.”
It is a similar rationale, if it can be called such a thing, that I have heard from many Renaissance Fair-goers whose knowledge of the actual history of Renaissance-era Europe was either non-existent or rose-tinted.
But what is modernity? The dictionary definition of modernity is simply this: The state or quality of being modern. And just which aspect of modernity does TK disdain so much? It’s clearly not the automobile or the light bulb that he despises.
What TK despises is the over-competitiveness that modernity seems to have brought about in people because, as he says, “modernity – whose essential ingredients are industrialization and market economy – demands incessant competition” while on the other hand, “in the traditional economy, the one and only goal is sustenance.” He then goes on to say that “the essence of modernity is to turn humans into resources. Market economy and industrialization, operating together, dehumanize, commodify and objectify humans.”
Modernity, whose essence TK calls ‘toxic,’ supposedly turned people into commodities, whether we are talking about 1960s sweatshop workers or modern-day public educated white-collar workers or record-setting plastic surgery rates or equally record-setting declining birth rates; and that therefore “it is only a slight exaggeration to say that every social problem in Korea is ultimately reducible to commodification.”
In other words, TK doesn’t despise the wealth or the technological progress that have been brought about by modernization. What he despises are “industrialization and market economy,” otherwise known as capitalism.
When TK says that Koreans have been commodified, what he is saying is that individuals, through various means of socialization, have been turned into easily replaceable unthinking automatons. But does capitalism really turn people into commodities?
Firstly, it has to be recognized that one of the fundamental philosophical ideas behind capitalism is voluntary action. In a capitalist society, based on the concept of mutual benefit, people are free to cooperate or not cooperate with one another as their own individual interests dictate; being coerced to cooperate or otherwise is the very antithesis of capitalism. Under such a system, in order for an individual to survive or thrive, the individual has to rely on intellectual thought. Whether an individual chooses to cooperate with others or not, the individual is acting upon his/her own rational judgment. As such, freedom and rational thought are necessary ingredients for capitalism to exist.
Is this what TK thinks is toxic?
Secondly, considering the voluntary nature that capitalism requires, capitalism, or modernity as TK calls it, demands the best of every individual and rewards individuals accordingly. Why does capitalism demand the best? That is because voluntary trade with others necessitates mutual benefit. What that means is that in order to trade with others, others must recognize that my work, whatever it may be, is objectively valuable and vice versa. It is this mutually beneficial trade, which forbids mediocrity, that allows a society’s standard of living to rise – even for those who do not take part in this act.
Is this what TK thinks is dehumanizing?
Thirdly, it would be supremely idiotic to claim that capitalism does not require competition. However, no one competes solely for the sake of competing. Competition has never been nor will it ever be the end goal of capitalism. Competition is nothing more than one of the by-products of productive work that is required to raise a society’s standard of living.
The fact of the matter is that competition as it exists under capitalism is entirely different from the Hobbesian nature of competition found in the animal kingdom – bellum omnium contra omnes – which TK seems to equate as being one and the same thing. In the animal kingdom, competition means to eat or be eaten; mate or risk seeing the end to one’s genetic line. Under capitalism, competition is merely a process that is required for the creation of new and additional wealth. For example, the effect of the competition between farmers using horses and those using tractors was not that the former group died of starvation, but that everyone had more food. The creation of new and additional wealth, which was brought about by competition, is what allows even the farmers who ‘lost’ the competition to find employment elsewhere.
Is this what TK thinks is akin to commodifying people?
Fourthly, of course the one and only goal of traditional economy was sustenance. Mere sustenance or subsistence was the one and only goal for the majority of pre-modern Koreans because both the law and cultural norms of the time forbade ambition.
Pre-modern Korea was a feudal society that was steeped in an inherently unjust caste system. It was a society that allowed the aristocratic Yangban class to thrive on indentured servitude and the slave labor of the lower classes while they enjoyed being “scholarly gentlemen.” It was a society that forced the vast majority of women to learn (if they got any kind of education at all to begin with) nothing else besides how to be an obedient wife and how to birth sons.
With the exception of the privileged few, whose privileges were the result of the pure accident of birth, pre-modern Korean laws, both written and unwritten, were designed specifically to eliminate ambition because a people with little to no ambition are much easier to rule over. When people are prevented from having ambitions beyond mere subsistence under the penalty of law, when the law does everything it can to suppress the mind, bare subsistence becomes the only goal worth achieving. In other words, the law forced individuals – people with rational minds, dreams, hopes, and ambitions – to lead lives that were no better than that of mindless cattle
Capitalism, on the other hand, rewards merits and punishes mediocrity. It is a system that allows an intelligent and industrious poor man to reach heights that even the kings of old dared not dream while at the same time forcing the squandering rich to some day seek minimum-wage jobs.
What did pre-modern Korea reward? It rewarded those who were fortunate enough to be born as boys to a Yangban family. The sheer accident that was their birth allowed them to possess unearned wealth and political influence. As for everyone else, the sentence they received for the sole crime of being born as everyone else was a lifetime of subsistence farming and manual labor.
Is this what TK thinks is charming?
TK’s nostalgia for Korea’s pre-modern past, which he has clearly romanticized despite claiming otherwise, is comparable to some Americans’ idealized fancies of the Antebellum South. Just like the latter, it is equally ludicrous and obnoxious.
That Korean society has its problems is not in question. Its high suicide rate is a troubling indictment on how little Koreans value life. That there is such a wide income/political power gap between those who own or run the chaebol companies and everyone else speaks volumes about the corrupt nature of politics; how the Big Government/Big Business relationship is a symbiotic and parasitic one where a select few are protected from the marketplace at the expense of everyone else. Koreans’ record-setting penchant for going under the knife for plastic surgery shows that Koreans have very low self-esteem and that there are many Koreans who seem to gain their self-esteem through the approval (or disapproval) of others rather than from within themselves.
The many problems that plague Korean society can trace their roots to moral, psychological, ethical, cultural, political, and economic causes that were not non-existent in pre-modern Korean society. The fact that other countries that practice very different beliefs and cultural mores share the same problems that plague Korea goes to show that it is probable that people from other countries and other cultures face the same sets of moral, psychological ethical, cultural, political, and economic problems that plague Koreans. By merely observing that those other countries also practice capitalism without bothering to go into detail the possible faults that lie within people’s values system, TK committed the logical fallacy that is known as post hoc ergo propter hoc.
As I said earlier, however, TK doesn’t despise the automobile or the light bulb. He recognizes that capitalism has helped to bring about “unprecedented wealth (albeit distributed unevenly), advanced medical science and greater knowledge about the world around us.” He’s no Luddite. As such, even if it were somehow possible, he does not agree that it would be desirable for people to go back to a pre-modern era.
TK accepts reality for what it is. He merely wishes that people could go back to a pre-modern era without having to give up all the “unprecedented wealth (albeit distributed unevenly), advanced medical science and greater knowledge about the world around us” that we have achieved through capitalism.
What that means is that TK wishes that people could enjoy the bountiful fruits that they have earned through capitalism without the necessity of practicing capitalism. He wishes that people could enjoy “unprecedented wealth (albeit distributed unevenly), advanced medical science and greater knowledge about the world around us” without the freedom and rational thought that are necessary for them to exist.
It is a wish for the impossible. That is why TK needs to rely on moral and intellectual uncertainty – “Would Koreans really want to go back to the way things were, three centuries ago? They are also exceedingly difficult, and their scope is far greater than a single national culture or tradition.” – to give a false profundity to his irrational desire. It is the only way he can intellectually deceive others as well as himself.
All that being said, however, I recognize that I ought to be fair and give some consideration to the fact that I could be wrong. Capitalism and modernity could possibly be as evil as TK says they are. If they are as evil as TK claims, however, I will gladly march to hell while whistling a happy tune.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared over at The Korean Foreigner. To learn more about John Lee and his website, please feel free to visit his website and check out some of the other writing he has done there.