There has been a string of backlashes against people’s desire for democracy since the former President Noh choked the 1987 June struggle through a cunning gesture of accommodation. With the so-called ’6.29 Concession’ the fignt for politicla change was swept into the constitutional amendment negotiations, among the political powers of the existing establishment.
Following the nepotistic Kim Young-sam government, actually based on the former military dictatorship, the Kim Dae-jung government took power, only to preach neo-liberalism and financial globalization to Korea. These governments smashed people’s desire for emancipation and democracy. Finally, President Noh Moo-hyun, who has liked to portray himself as a legitimate successor to the 1987 democratization, actually shattered it by concluding the Korea-US FTA, supporting the invasion of Iraq, participating in the ’strategic flexibility of US forces, using extreme state violence against people’s rallies, and depriving people of civil rights including the freedom of assembly and association.
To clean up this deceptive history camouflaged as progress and reformation, we will have to find our way to democracy and the emancipation of labor in order to transform the neo-liberal order. We have to rekindle the people’s yearning for another world.
A Turnaround from Neo-liberal Society and the “lost 10 years” of Social Movements
Rooted in the bloody sacrifice of “May in Kwang-Ju”, the 1980s social movements’ main concerns were to bring together radical ideas and people’s struggles against the dictatorship. The 1987 June struggle was a result of those efforts, and people’s democracy grew there in an effort to go beyond. This was a kind of cradle where radical movements characterized by autonomy, solidarity and social transformation were brought up. A string of massive strikes from July to September came to an end, building a democratic general union. Farmers and students then also started to build their own organization.
However, the collapse of the real-socialist system cast a shadow over social movements that were not yet full grown. The movements, once united, started seeking their own distinct political lines and were thrown into political disarray. Social movements at the peak of their strength were thrown outside the political arena when state violence swooped in to take advantage of their internal divisions. We were defeated in the struggle against the then-ruling Minja party. The transition to the so-called ’Civilian Government’ led many groups which had been united to demand ’No to Dictatorship, Yes to Democracy‘ to differentiate their ideological and political lines. Many groups have considered ’the Civilian Government’ a completion of democracy and chose to become members of the establishment. The civil movement groups, emphasizing the role of legitimate and institutional alternatives, seceded from revolutionary movements and made their own territory. The existing mass organization of farmers, workers, the poor and students began losing their radicalism in the midst of bding pushed from the front line and increasing isolation, even as their size increased.
When the ’Korea Trade Union Congress ’ and the ’National Council of Union Representatives’, the predecessor of the ’Korean Confederation of Trade Unions‘, was formed, the body of the labor movement grew. But the labor movement seemed to lose its focus on social transformation and to get stuck in business unionism. In the peasant movement, the ’Korean Peasants League’ was established in 1990 and soon organized the massive struggle against the Uruguay Round and other struggles. But the farming population itself— and thus the base of the movement— had fundamentally decreased, because of agriculture-unfriendly neo-liberal policy. Student movements, which had played a key role in forming the political front of the 1980s, also retreated. In the shadow of the IMF, the labor movement experienced a serious downturn, and showed a compromising attitude towards the government and capitalist domination. Generally speaking, social movements tended to work within the system.
Social movements seemed to have no concrete strategy and a poor outlook for the future. In this context, social movements have failed to implement a front line political strategy or to construct subjects of movements. Movements have actually been improvising since the 1990s.
For the progress of social movements through interaction and solidarity
The Kor-US FTA has just been concluded and it will shake up the base of people’s livelihood. Extension of the US military base in Pyeongtaek is still going on. But our struggle is far below what it has to be. We have lost in a series of battles, from massive lay-offs in 1998 to backward amendments of labor laws, while the gap between regular and contingent workers is growing. The myth of the 1980s was dead, yet along comes something new. Where do we start if we want to put an end to those ’lost 10 years’?
First, we should rebuild the idea of social transformation movements against neoliberal globalization.
We are already finding a few keys from the growth of globalized social movements that are expanding solidarity across the world against neoliberal globalization and war. The movement for alternative globalization, denouncing deceptive ’globalization with a human face’, and anti-globalization that sympathizes with nationalism or racism, is trying hard to achieve people’s rights on all fronts. The alternative globalization that is oriented toward internationalism, feminism and pacifism has created a platform for revolutionary movements to revive since the collapse of the real-socialist system in 1989.
Social movements in Korea, however, have not settled their political directions. Our movements’ goals and directions are to be reformed through interacting and sharing the issues and problems affecting us. A diversity of movements should intermingle with each other in order to consolidate each other. We should add other universal values— human rights, environmental justice and feminism—without neglecting the orientation of labor emancipation.
Secondly, we should recognisze the notion of crisis and make a new order.
Progressive social movements are facing a significant crisis. Mass organizations are accused of only looking out for their own interests, and that they have failed to provide vision. Constant innovation is necessary. There are lots of issues such as the Feminization of poverty, discrimination against the socially weak and minorities, continuing environmental destruction. Social movemnets, however can’t give people any alternatives and visions against these problems. Social movement activists should enlist each other’s help, that is, dismantle the machine of neoliberal globalization beyond capitalism. This can be achieved by talking to each other about our respective directions and ways of practice, then applying them in reality. We should set universal agendas and recruit new social movement activists. These actions would stimulate other movements to become more and more active. As a result of these efforts, whole social movement would become more active.
Thirdly, we should find the best way to unite to eventually expand solidarity.
What should we do now to shape the anti-globalization movement in line with anti-war action, and labor movements coupled with feminism and getting rid of barriers within the working class? What’s the strategy to initiate collective action in the midst of heightening tensions in East Asia? And what is to be done if we want to defend the public interest and keep the Kor-US FTA from being concluded? These questions should be answered not only by what we talk about but also what we do. Thus we all, as activists, should establish frameworks of practice. We cannot be enclosed within the legality the Establishment has made. The only yardstick we have is this: whether it will encourage the masses to be active, not whether it is legal or not. We need to change a passive position to an active one and recognise the situation integrally, not segmentally, in order to have the capacity to get the masses back into movement. So we should get the labor movement to restore its own autonomy, solidarity and transformation orientation and enrich social movements, which would help to construct a new solidarity against neoliberalism across all divisions; progressive parties, trade unions, social movements, indigenous communities, and other civil society groups.
We need to ask questions about creating new goals, structure and models of progressive movements. These are not answered yet. We can only find answers if we talk together. Then there are high hopes of building concrete solidarity, and strengthening ourselves in the process. The ruling class is already attempting to make this year and next a time of re-organization of Korea. We should make our own re-organization to find new opportunities for progressive social movements and to give people hope.
Quest for another world, Social Movement Forum: a space for interaction and solidarity
The “Social Movement Forum” will be a platform for those who want to establish other alternatives and consolidate our solidarity.
We will examine the dynamics of world capitalist domination and trace the transitions Korea has experienced, in order to find the alternatives for social movements. In particular ’Social Movement Forum 2007’ will assess the consequences of the 1987 June Struggle and the principle, history and present status of social movements since the so-called IMF era in 1997.
We want to expand both joint action and solidarity. Solidarity comes from interaction and sharing problems, and it strengthens us. The outcome of the struggle against the Kor-US FTA, US Base Expansion in Pyeongtaek and regressive labor law amendments will be assessed and used for other struggles. We will probably also discuss together a particular joint struggle, for example, how to intervene in the presidential election in 2007. We also have opportunities for diverse activists to promote exchanges of opinions and find more common ground.
As we’ve seen in the World Social Forum, the Social Movements Forum is going to start breaking ground where many distinctive activist groups can discuss and be educated on an equal footing. In organizing the forum, it will be a space where the audience is encouraged to give their own voice. At the same time it will be culturally rich.
We cannot have everything at once. But this experience will probably help us communicate our goals to others, settle principles further and enhance opportunities. We want you to bring your experience and imagination to the “Social Movement Forum”.