South Korea, Value and Workers’ Rights – Part 1

A conversation with Professor Sudol Kang

Sudol Kang is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Convergence Management at Korea University. Last winter, Prof. Kang and I published an article about the TV series Squid Game and what it says about South Korean capitalism (Squid Game highlights plight of South Korean workers sacrificed for nation’s economic gain‘). It’s my pleasure to collaborate with Prof. Kang again, to take up some of the themes of that article and go a little deeper. Over the next 3 blog posts, Prof. Kang will explore what capitalism is, how it’s developed in the country, and its effect on the Korean labour movement. We’ll also discuss routes towards a fairer, more democratic society. I’m very grateful for Prof. Kang’s vital insights and photos.

Greg Sharzer: Could you explain what you mean by value?  How does it shape capitalist society?

Sudol Kang: Value is a quintessential concept of the core of capitalist commodity society, in the Marxian sense. Originally, commodities have two sides: a use-value and an exchange-value. A capitalist commodity society operates on the law of equivalence (exchange): completely unrelated objects exchange with each other by being separated from their tangible uses. They do this by acquiring an abstract equivalence with each other: an exchange-value. This exchange-value gradually acquires independence from use-value, and finally it dominates all uses and in that way almost all the aspects of our lives.  

So what is the source of this value?  It is abstract labor that produces exchange-value, i.e. human labor that has been abstracted and can be traded on the basis of quantity alone. This contrasts with concrete labor, which is labor that directly creates use-values, such as labor to make clothes, labor to build houses, and labor to grow wheat.  Abstract labor, on the other hand, is a concept that encompasses all labor performed by working people, regardless of what’s actually being made.

Prof. Kang engaging in some unalienated labour on his farm.

How does value shape a capitalist society?

Value ​​operates as the governing principle of capitalist society. I divide this  into three main aspects. The first is the law of equivalent exchange. All human relationships are transformed into exchange relationships, and capitalism tends to turn these relationships into equivalent exchanges: that is, an exchange between things having the same value.

The second is the law of exploitation. A capitalist or entrepreneur who owns capital hires workers in the labor market, and pays the workers a wage equal to the value of their labor power. But in the labor process, the capitalist produces a value that is more than the wage they pay their workers: a surplus value. It is worthwhile to note that the first law of equivalent exchange subtly hides this law of exploitation, as the former appears essential in the everyday reproduction of life to working people. It provides the use-value of self (self-worth or self-esteem) as well as the exchange-value of a job, i.e., a wage. Gradually addicted to these values of labor, working people cannot and will not see the law of exploitation.

The third is the Galbi rule. Galbi is a Korean word I created. Gal[Galgugi] means harassment, and Bi[Bibigi] means flattering. The law of Galbi indicates the law of survival for working people in capitalism; that is, in order to survive, a person in a hierarchy should harass subordinates and simultaneously flatter supervisors. Although the law of equivalence works on the surface, the law of exploitation works beneath it, in the ‘black box’ of the production process. In order to make this exploitation more effective, the law of Galbi promotes competition and hierarchies among workers, while at the same time making workers (including managers) ‘galgugi’ (control, monitor, oppress) their subordinates and ‘bibigi’ (flatter, submit be loyal ) to their supervisors. This ensures workers’ survival and makes their promotion possible and easier.

When values ​​dominate an entire society, people lose their inherent humanity and autonomy, and tend to try only to produce, own, and accumulate more values. In the place of intimate human relationships, object relationships (commodities, money, contracts, laws etc.) come into play. People are no longer people per se and give authority to and form relationships with objects instead. This is what Marx referred to as a fetish society. In this way, value ​​infects society with fetishism.

What is labour? How does value shape it in South Korea?

As I said, capitalist commodities have use and exchange values, and capitalist labor also has two sides: concrete labor and abstract labor.  As capitalism develops, use value and the concrete labor that produces it weakens, while exchange value and abstract labor more and more dominates. So, when one says that labor produces value, this is equivalent to saying that abstract labor produces exchange value.

In South Korea, that process is largely intertwined with President Park Chung-hee’s post-1960s economic development plan (the so-called ‘development dictatorship’). After Park’s assassination in 1979, new military forces under Presidents Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo took the lead in Korean capitalism. For about 30 years, a development dictatorship dominated the country. Put another way, Korean capitalism required about 30 years of military dictatorship to make labor efficiently and effectively produce value.

How does labor resist value?

SThe ‘Great Workers Struggle’, which took place in the summer of 1987, was a wave of unionization and resistance to the military dictatorship and barracks-style labor control. It created a mass struggle for labor democratization. Following it, the first democratic government of Kim Young-sam took office in 1993. However, it was only a surface democratization; in reality, it continued the series of dictatorships of capital. 

Demonstration during the Great Workers’ Struggle, South Korea, 1987

Workers’ resistance also grew stronger: after the formation of the Chunnohyup (The Association of National Labor Unions) in 1991, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was founded in 1995, under the slogan of “labor liberation”. However, these struggles were focused on the distribution of value rather than resisting capitalist value production itself. The latter was just taken for granted, even if there were some marginal voices calling for resistance to value production.

The shift to a struggle for value distribution, rather than resistance to value itself, unfortunately, did not change even under the so-called democratic-progressive governments from the 1990s to the present, under Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in. Rather, as unemployment intensified amid globalized competition, job protection and creation became the common goal of all workers, ordinary citizens, students and government. Thus today, the Korean labor movement today is largely confined to the struggle over value distribution while actively cooperating in (let alone resisting) the production of value. Despite democratization since the 1980s – or even more firmly because of it – the system of value production of capital has fully maintained its dominance.

Next: the history of capitalism in South Korea.

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