Asia Institute Seminar “Populism in Korea” with Benjamin Barber


Asia Institute Seminar]

“Populism in Korea”


May 15, 2012


Benjamin  Barber

Benjamin R. Barber

Distinguished Senior Fellow



President and Founder




Emanuel Pastreich:

Today in Korea much criticism is made of so-called “populism” and the promotion of large-scale welfare programs such as free meal programs for elementary school students. In a previous age, such programs were pretty common in Korea, but of late many write about the dangers of over-dependency on the state. The question is not a simple one, for even if we agree that government should be responsible for educating and feeding all students and even if we thought government should guarantee some form of employment to all students, nevertheless, we would have to recognize that there must be some limit.

Benjamin  Barber:

The problem with this issue is that as soon as someone says something like “dependency on the state” they are making certain quiet assumptions about the key terms for discourse and that framing of the question makes it difficult to respond.

Of course “dependency on the state” IS unhealthy, and should be avoided. But what exactly comprises “dependency on the state”? –that is the question.

For that matter, what exactly is “the state?”   If we talk about the state, are we imagining an alien body, a distant patriarch on whom the client/citizens become dependent? Or is that state actually “us,” a democratic body that represents our interests? If it is the latter, than “dependency on the state” is only “dependency of the citizen body on the citizen body,” which is, in truth, not dependency at all.


Emanuel Pastreich:

Your immediate questioning of the assumptions of the debate is of course most apposite. There is plenty of room to sweep certain problems under the carpet just by the manner in which we start. Fred Block, who has shown considerable interest in Korea recently, wrote a book The Vampire State and Other Myths in which he systematically exposes many of these misconceptions and the political and ideological context in which those myths were constructed. So yes, the concept of dependency on the state is sometimes thrown out there as a bogey man to distract and to keep focusing on the more essential question: what is the state and how is it related to the interests of the citizen.

At the same time, however, there are clearly dangers of dependency. Siva Vaidhyanthan’s book The Googlization of Everything details how dependency on a search engine can have serious consequences not only for the power of that search engine, but also for the capacity of the individual to think for himself.


Benjamin  Barber:

Dependency is of course an issue with all forms of authority, including political authority. Yet it is the very aim of democracy to turn the relationship of citizens and political authority into an egalitarian relationship. Dependency usually is the consequence NOT of too much but too little democracy. Our response to dependence should be to strengthen the citizen not weaken the state which should be the citizens’ instrument.

With respect to particular arguments about free lunches, there are indeed  many articles in the Korean media, and rather feisty political figures who denounced the recent Seoul Metropolitan City  referendum on free meals, and the call for free meals in the first place by the Education Superintendent for Seoul, as an appeal to “uninformed voters.” Well, that may or may not be the case. But if it is the case that voters are uninformed, the first question should be “Why are those voters  uninformed?” Could it be that voters are assumed to be “uninformed,” or “populist” simply because they disagree with Mayor Oh, and insist that free meals is a right for all students?

Surely the position that all students are entitled to free meals is a valid and arguable position, even though there may also be reasonable objections to it.  If we look only at the basic facts in this case in which Mayor Oh staked his beliefs on a referendum and then lost seems to me to be an example of democratic process. The people spoke their convictions, and the Mayor made good on his promise to resign if the people over-ruled him. This is the essence of democracy, and only those who don’t like the outcome are likely to argue otherwise.

Emanuel Pastreich:

You suggested that the behavior of Mayor Oh could be seen as rather inflammatory politics and that the essential issue in such political crises is the level of awareness of citizens. Therefore you suggest that improvement in general education for citizens is most important. How do imagine we can manage to achieve such a general education for citizens? It is a noble goal, but the obstacles are many.

Benjamin Barber:

Mayors and other public officials are supposed to incarnate civic spirit and the idea of public goods. That is their civil responsibility. When they fail to do so, they fail us as civic leaders. But citizens
too need to support politicians who stand up for public goods. Politicians need to have the citizens behind them when they make

Hard choices. Citizens need not just an education, but a civic education and a strong tradition of civic engagement.

The French scholar of the 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the “apprenticeship of liberty” is the most “arduous of all apprenticeships.”

He was suggesting that people must LEARN to be free. To take that old phrase used so often with regards to the Korean War and give it a new spin, “Freedom is not free.” We may say that men are “born free,” but in fact we are born as weak dependents, and we must acquire the skills and arts of liberty through civic learning, political engagement and public participation. That can start with teams in kindergarten who are assigned to clean up the classroom. A constitution is only as good as the citizens it empowers; Without strong citizens there can be no democracy

Emanuel Pastreich:

For that matter, if the primary argument is that populism is a threat because it appeals to the large mass of citizens who are so poorly educated that they are easily swayed by the rhetoric of politicians, then the first step is to invest heavily in education for everyone, especially those from lower income groups. Overall, Korea has done better than many nations in educating its population.  Compared with the United States, the working class in Korea is extremely well educated and the focus of education has been on bringing everyone up to a reasonable level, rather than cultivating a super-elite group of highly educated leaders.

Interestingly enough, recent movements to increase the emphasis on building elite schools like Seoul National University at the cost of regional or local schools (same for high schools) is justified in reference to the United States. If only Korea had its own “Harvard” it would be globally competitive. Of course, I find myself falling into this very trap when I discuss issues in education as a professor at Kyung Hee University. We tend to want the best for the school. What the consequences are for the average citizen is not a priority.

Benjamin  Barber:

Yet civic education is not just about elite universities. The role of ordinary public schools and colleges is much more important, since this is where most citizens will be educated. Civic education programs need to be widespread.  The very idea of “elite” universities such as Harvard or Cambridge in England or the Sorbonne in Paris encourages the notion that education is only for the few.  But in a democracy, as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (among the founders of the United States) agreed, there must be universal civic education and liberal arts education to assure that ordinary citizens can understand the facts, can think clearly, and can deliberate rationally.

The “best educated” have not always been the most liberal, or the most democratically inclined. In fascist German and Imperial Japan, the elites elected to use their special knowledge and position for purposes of oppression rather than justice!

But, coming back to the question of free meals for elementary school students, we can put it the question way:

It is not “the role of the state to feed everyone,” but it IS the right of citizens to decide that children in school need to eat in order to learn, and that rather than segregate the rich and poor at the cafeteria, it is more just to feed all alike.

Perhaps one possible reading of this argument advanced in the Korean media, and by various pundits, is that there is somehow no real popular support for what should be popular causes, and so demagoguery is needed to rally the people for those causes. But surely we can interpret the very action taken by the people in favor of free lunches as an indication of activated people who rose to oppose a mayor who threatened to quit if his views were not upheld. Some might consider the mayor’s threat “demagogic.”

Emanuel Pastreich:

I certainly saw that episode as a very twisted interpretation of democracy by Mayor Oh. After all, he was elected to be mayor of Seoul, not elected to do what he feels like, or even what he feels is his moral responsibility. If he somehow felt that giving free lunches to everyone was so unethical that he could no longer serve as mayor, then he was certainly entitled to resign. But to stake his continuing to serve as mayor to the passage of a referendum was in a sense saying, “I am giving you the privilege of having me as your mayor. If you do not do what I want, I will take that away from you.”

Oddly, and here we come back to the issue of education, many people in Seoul of various political stripes were somehow impressed by what Mayor Oh did. He impressed some people as someone who was willing to stake his career on an issue—even if that issue was a bit silly. That part of Korean politics I found a bit puzzling, but it was true. Many voters are swayed by the rhetoric of politicians and led the wrong way, or at least in very different ways than they had anticipated. So although this example may not be the best one, the question of how voters can be manipulated is a very serious issue. And I would say it is not even primarily an issue of the poorly educated. The contrary, the most serious manipulation is aimed at the highly educated who are fed articles in extremely refined language with elegant photographs which suggest that practices that are highly damaging to the environment are eco-friendly, or rapacious lending practices of banks actually encourage entrepreneurship.

Benjamin  Barber:

Citizens are often impressed by politicians who follow principle as they see it, rather than public polls, and properly so. Politicians are supposed to be leaders. But a citizenry may admire a mayor and still oppose his policy vigorously. Citizens too have responsibilities. And in a democracy, true leadership concerns the obligations of the many to take responsibility as both citizens and candidates for elective office.

Democracy is NOT the result of noblesse oblige by a few self-appointed democratic aristocrats. As has been demonstrated again and again, from the Nazi takeover of Germany through democratic elections  to the systematic rise to power of the elites of Imperial Japan, good education and advanced learning are, by themselves, no guarantee of just government or fair judgment in politics.

The American writer William F. Buckley, Jr.  Once wrote, “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

Indeed, the demagogues are more often than not the educated elites who manipulate corporate media, and other elite knowledge resources, to influence public opinion.

Emanuel Pastreich:

And yet I sense that the issue may be a bit more complex. One of the common complaints expressed today about the electorate in the United States is that citizens “don’t want leaders, they want miracle workers.” I believe there is a kernel of truth to that hyperbole. There is increasingly an expectation that you will vote someone into office and then he or she will proceed to clean up the mess, put everything in order without you as citizen having to do much of anything except complain to each other.  And then if he or she does not do the job well, then you can vote someone else into office. In a sense politicians are viewed in the sense that Tide Detergent or Tylenol is: a product or service.

That attitude is a result of the profound commercialization of our society, in which we cannot help but see things as products for consumptions, and in which all processes are governed by money, or free no-obligation choices (Netflix or Google). Such a crippling culture is not limited to the elite; it permeates even the poverty-stricken and significantly hampers our ability to get much of anything done. There is another layer to things that goes beyond the simple class dichotomies. I think it has something do to with technology.

Populism is a serious misnomer, but there is clearly an effort to make appeals to the people of perceived happiness, or perceived freedom, through symbolic acts. I would say that President Obama’s embrace of same sex marriage is a perfect example of that sort of a product for political consumption. Of course the issue is critical to some people, but for many, like late-term abortion for the Christian right, it is an addictive stimulus, not policy.

Benjamin  Barber:

I agree that when citizens begin to see themselves as consumers, as clients of a service state, rather than as citizens, democracy will be badly distorted. Radical commercialization is incompatible with democracy. I make this argument at length in my book Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole.

The commercialization of all things is the most dangerous “manipulation” of all. The spread of such a perception deludes individuals into thinking that as private consumers they can do what a responsible public citizen would do. They cannot.  In order to understand the difference between consumers and citizens, civic education needs to focus on the distinction between private and public goods; between private liberty (choosing what I want) and public liberty (considering what we — a community — need). Education also must help demonstrate the distinction between top-down coercion, which is well understood, and bottom-up persuasion and manipulation, often invisible and underestimated.

We think we have a “choice” because in Los Angeles we can rent or buy a hundred different brands of automobile. Yet the real choice between private and public transportation doesn’t exist and deprives of real liberty! We have only the choice of what kind of car we want to spend four hours a day sitting in while we are stuck on the freeway!   And finally, we require MEDIA EDUCATION, to understand how the old and new media, including video games and Facebook, all shape how we think and feel in ways we often don’t notice, or even like!

But there are also issues of demographics at play here as well: Korea has a rapidly aging population, but does not have some of the other social problems of other aging Western democracies. So the fact that Korea also encounters the same crisis of the welfare state suggests that perhaps the crisis is not just about objective demographics, like having too few young workers to pay for the retirement and medical benefits of many aging and retired people. The problem is pretty much the same. Questions are being asked about how working people are going to handle their retirements, but what is missing from the discussion about the costs of the welfare state is a consideration of the impact on these policies of corporate and financial elites.

The political choice is not just between responsible “noblesse oblige” elites who are trying to curb the excesses of a runaway welfare state and an undisciplined citizenry who are demanding  too many goodies for free. There is a third force in play: private interest corporations and banks who seek the domination of private interests over the public sphere and put profits above the public good.

Emanuel Pastreich:

I would not disagree with that analysis. In fact the most striking aspect of the political discourse in Korea or the United States over the last ten years is just how much of the political issues are simply off the table, not up for any form of discussion. The lobbying firms who go to work on healthcare legislation are never subject to any form of  analysis in reporting on healthcare reform in the United States, even as their role is decisive.

And yes, there is a form of deep political passivity that we see at all levels in American and Korean society that allows this situation to continue, keeps people from organizing and criticizing. In a previous age, poor people know how to cook for themselves and even how to build a house, or skin a deer. There was not the same level of  dependency on television or food services. That dependency on technologies, on food supplied, on commercial entertainment, has been a major factor in keeping working class people from being politically effective, in my opinion. I am not saying that the elite strategies to sweep problems under the rug are not true, but just there is yet another dimension.

Benjamin  Barber:

The important point you make is that passivity (and dependency) are widespread in modern society, whether in the East or the West. A paternalistic government, a “nanny state,” can be a reason for such passivity, but there are many other institutions that can infantilize people and make them dependent besides the government. I am talking about markets, consumer culture and the media, Perhaps the worst defect is the dependency of citizens on private interests for public goods and services.

The truth is that the real problem in Korea or in the United States is the subordination of democratic public goods to undemocratic private goods, and the emergence of a dominant global ideology that vilifies the “state” as an undemocratic and patronizing oligarch, and praises private markets as the saviors for all problems—which they are not!

Emanuel Pastreich:

There have been all sorts of criticisms of populism for both the conservative and the liberal parties in the newspaper. But what exactly is meant is somewhat obscure. Sometimes it seems as if the word “populism” takes the place of the term “socialism” used in the old days to attack people from the left, or the right, who asked the wrong questions within the Korean political system. But there is also a sense in which the term is related to a general pandering  to voters impressions. In the later sense, the term does have some meaning.

Emanuel Pastreich:

In Korea today there is a move toward extending welfare coverage, which obviously will have to be financed through increased taxes. Some want higher tax rates for the rich, or on multinational corporations. But there is concern that such efforts to extract social justice through government, through taxation, will create extremely damaging social conflict. What do you think about this issue?

Benjamin Barber:

There will only be social conflict in connection with taxation when there is NO belief in, or commitment to, the idea of a “Res Publica” (public good). If we look at history, when Public goods and public services were supported by the public and then money went for a public cause, there was no social conflict. When those who pay for the projects of government share in the public benefits, and the beneficiaries of all such projects and programs pay their fair share (based on their ability and income), then there will be no social conflict but only social harmony.

But we do not find such a situation today. There are many programs run by government with your tax dollars that are only available to the wealthy and to large corporations. If pubic goods become essentially privatized, and those who were once citizens start to think of themselves as private individuals, responsible to no one. If everyone is essentially looking out for his/her own interests by gaming the system, then conflicts will arise. The most basic cause for conflict is this: people have ceased to think of themselves as public citizens, as part of a continuum that includes all people. They are no longer bees working together in a beehive for the common good, but rather lone wolves looking for prey. In an era of market fundamentalism like this one, privatization prevails and social conflict is all too present.

Emanuel Pastreich:

There is a move in Korea toward extending welfare coverage, which obviously will have to be financed through increased taxes. Some want higher tax rates for the rich, or on multinational corporations. But there is concern that such efforts to extract social justice through government, through taxation, will create extremely damaging social conflict. What do you think about this issue?

Benjamin Barber:

The distribution of income and wealth has become a critical issue as a result of the perfect storm born of two set of events: the banking crisis and the ensuing economic depression of 2008. The cause of these two hurricanes was the irresponsible behavior of financial leaders. The subsequent polarization dividing the populations of nations sharply between the rich and the rest, as well as between the middle class and the poor has been a long-term trend in the West for a half century, but it is being radically accelerated.  As the middle class and poor suffer the consequences of the current depression, the rich are demanding lower taxes and freedom from all regulation. The situation will not be tolerated forever. Under these circumstances, prudent business leaders like Warren Buffett recognize the dangers and are arguing that the wealthy should carry a greater tax burden to go along with their wealth and privileges.

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