Circles and Squares

Insights into Korea's Sudden Rise

“What’s in a name?” (JoongAng Daily January 25, 2016)

JoongAng Daily

“What’s in a name?”

January 25, 2016

Emanuel Pastreich

There is tremendous dissatisfaction with Korean economics and politics on the part of ordinary citizens and an increasing desire to single out some group of bad people who are somehow responsible for the increasing distance between the priorities expressed by government and corporations and the actual needs of ordinary citizens.

But although there is a lack of concern for the plight of ordinary people on the part of many in authority, they are not the cause of the disconnect between national policy and the economic reality of ordinary citizens. Rather, there has been a breakdown of the assumed contract between the citizens and their rulers.

The best way to understand this problem is not to dwell on the latest statement by a contemporary politician but to return to Confucius’ most important political imperative: “The rectification of names.” Confucius saw the “rectification of names” as a means of reducing the discord between the names that we employ to describe institutions and professions and the reality of what those institutions have evolved into.

We use terms like “government,” “university,” “lawyer,” “doctor,” and “corporation” to refer to institutions we think we understand, but the functions of each of these institutions has shifted rapidly over the last decade, and even more in the last five years. For example, banks have evolved technologically and become globalized in a dramatic manner that has profoundly altered their function in our society and their goals. Sadly, because the media simply continues to use terms like “bank” or “national assembly” without ever stepping back to assess how these institutions are changing, there is much confusion among citizens.

The streets and buildings that we see look more or less the same as before, but our schools, government institutions and our corporations are profoundly different in terms of how they function and what their purpose is. That gap between the assumptions about what an institution does and its current reality is the source of much of the dissatisfaction with society.

Perhaps no field is more confused and more in need of a “rectification of names” than that chaotic cultural space we refer to as “politics.” The current Korean term for “politics” was imported from Japan as a general term to denote the activities between various interest groups in the determination of government policy.

In reality, politics combined the distinct concepts of philosophy of relations between people and institutions, the science of governance, and obligations and duties, which had been clearly defined in traditional Korea. That combination has created a conceptual confusion that remains today.

First there is politics in the sense of political philosophy, fundamental concepts of what an ideal human society should be and how it should be organized. This is politics at the highest level, involving the fields of aesthetics and metaphysics. Political philosophy should never be impractical or obscure, but it must be constantly revisited to keep the practice of politics from becoming empty ritual, or short-sighted horse trading.

Then there is politics in the sense of governance, the art of fine tuning and running a government in terms of policy, legislation and practice. This aspect of politics is similar to mechanical engineering as it involves the architecture of complex systems and the balance of opposing and converging forces.

Finally, there is politics in the sense of benefit and influence. This aspect of contemporary politics has no perfect analogy in the pre-modern world but is perhaps closest to the concept of obligation and ties. This process by which influence and authority are converted into financial gain, or, conversely, money is converted into influence and authority can never be eliminated from a complex society – and to try to suppress all financial influence is to open the door to the dangerous absolutism of communist systems. But the business aspect of politics should only be one part of the political process and it should never be allowed to eclipse the other two aspects.

If we want an honest answer to why government is no longer able to formulate and implement meaningful policies, it is not sufficient, or even helpful, to attack individuals or even to criticize political parties. The first step is to recognize the theoretical confusion in the very concept of politics that leads both voters and politicians to conflate profoundly different aspects of the political process. Such confusion of terms has made us blind to the most serious dysfunctions of our society. Let us first distinguish between different activities that citizens engage in, and how those activities are evolving and changing.

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