A Specter is Haunting the Powers That Be: Thinking about Korea while Looking at Wall Street

A new kind of politics is upon us. Many observers have highlighted the technological characteristics of this politics. Cell phones and Facebook and other social media are the heroes in these accounts of the Arab Spring, the Israeli summer, and now of not only the Tea Party but also Occupy Wall Street. Yet, these accounts are unsatisfying, because they don’t take into account the human agency of the new politics, the specific political struggles. We should clearly recognize the importance of the new media, but it seems to me that what is extraordinary is the way a type of power, political power as Hannah Arendt understood it, is becoming increasingly important. People are meeting each other, now virtually and not only face to face, speaking and acting in each other’s presence, developing a capacity to act in concert.

I analyzed the way this power works in our world in my book, The Politics of Small Things. It points to the way the power of “the politics of small things” was common to both the Solidarity Movement in opposition to the previously existing socialist order in Poland of the 80s and to the anti-war movement and the Dean campaign during the Bush years in America. Recently a Korean translation of the book was published. I wrote a special preface, including some thoughts on how the politics of small things worked in a social movement in South Korea, the Candle Movement. Now, those reflections are helping me understand what I am seeing in lower Manhattan and considering its potential. I think the power of the politics of small things is becoming a significant force throughout the world today in many different contexts, and that it is important to take notice in places far and near.

My general understanding as an outsider and non-expert of the Candle Movement:  Using a popular electronic public forum, Agora, a fourteen year old middle school girl called for a candle light vigil at the Seoul City Hall Public Square to protest against the resumption of American beef imports in early April of 2008. Initially, most protesters were teenagers from middle and high schools, between fourteen and seventeen. A group of text messaging Korean girls was discussing the dangers of mad cow disease, the need to act and then acted. The demonstrators shared their concerns among themselves in ever wider social circles and decided that they must do something about it. In relatively small gatherings, they met to demonstrate their concern, and there was robust response to the demonstrations as they became visible to the larger society. There followed a series of ever larger candle light demonstrations at the square and around the city and country, leading to massive nationwide candle light demonstrations around the country on June 10th, with one million people taking part.

Intriguingly, the response to the Candle Movement was first from unconventional social actors, women’s groups of various sorts primarily among them, and then more conventional oppositional political parties, democratic activists and civil society actors of various sorts. The beef was the first issue, but then a number of unpopular plans and policies of the new administration were criticized: privatization, the Korea – United States Fair Trade Agreement, the Grand Korean Waterway, the educational reforms, the predominance of the wealthy in the new cabinet, and overly pro-business public policies in general.  What began as little more than a group of teenagers acting out became a mass societal movement, strong enough that it greatly and negatively affected the popularity of the newly elected President, Lee Myung-bak, led to the resignation in mass of his cabinet the day after the largest demonstration, and provoked a systematic response from the police, unseen in the country in over twenty years, presenting for all to see a repressive side of the political order. Small things added up.

It is notable how major events in our times follow this pattern. First, people with common concerns find each other. Then, they talk to each other. Then, they act, and sometimes people notice. The noticing, of course, is not random. There is a pattern to it. Big media, what is called these days, the mainstream media, play a role, as do cultural resonance and political inventiveness. Whether, and how, the mainstream media report on the concerted action matters. So does how a larger public understands the movement. In Korea, it is significant that women’s groups responded first and then the larger world of conventional political actors took notice. The teenage girls’ movement became a broader societal wide movement as women passed the message on. The message was positively received because it resonated with a broad skepticism about the unequal relationship between the U.S. and South Korea. The meat of the issue was not the meat itself.

I think of this as I am looking downtown at the ground zero social movement, Occupy Wall Street. Lower Manhattan, since 9/11/01, is central to the American imagination about who we are and what we stand for. This led to an outrageous flight from factual truth in the case of “The Ground Zero Mosque.” In the case of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is empowering those who want Americans to look clearly at the facts of inequality in our country.

The movement started smaller than planned. Adbusters the organization that first promoted the protest, imagined initial participation in the thousands, and instead there were only hundreds. Yet, the movement sustained itself through the simple act of persisting at a symbolic center, Wall Street, when the values of that center are broadly questioned. The movement was taken over by those who participated. They became the leaders. Now others are taking notice, because of the political cultural creativity of the protest, first a hand full of celebrities, but now, crucially, trade unions. The police seem to be cooperating, creating periodic controversies that attract mainstream attention: last week pepper spray, this Saturday, mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge. A visible social movement is coming into view. A candle is being lit.

  • Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

    It’s very significant that the protests are now spreading around the country. The viral nature of the development is really impressive. A new political force is coming into being. Discontent with the growing inequality in America is now becoming visible.

  • Michael Corey

    It seems to me that there is an interesting process challenge. The Politics of Small Things, it seems to me, is a form of political action which is content neutral. It can be used for by people holding a variety of different types of political perspectives. There may be at least two processes happening simultaneously with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the Politics of Small Things and crowd dynamics. There seems to be an interplay between the two, and the later may be detracting from the former. The Occupy Wall Street Movement seems to have more in common with the Vietnam antiwar demonstrations than with the Civil Rights Movement demonstrations during the 1960s which in my view may have been more effective.

  • Scott

    Yes, there is an element of contagion with regards to the movement. The last count I saw was that it has “occupied” 116 cities within the US and 28 cities outside the US. In fact, the movement is actually global in nature with a worldwide protest being planned for Oct. 15th. Discontent with growing inequality is not only being felt with America, but all throughout the world; as should be expected, because the financial system at the root of it is “global” in its scope. (By some accounts, “Occupy Wall Street” was actually inspired by widespread global protest, such as recently occured in Spain.)