[Column] The state’s left hand

Posted on : 2009-11-04 11:56 KST Modified on : 2009-11-04 11:56 KST
Hong Se-hwa, Planning Committee Member of the Hankyoreh

Neoliberalism’s call for a reduced government sector has the ability to bewitch even leftists, in addition to ordinary citizens. Leftists, after all, still have the tendency to separate the state from civil society and see the relationship between the two as one of tension. However, late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu made it clear that while these reductions may weaken the state’s left hand, they further strengthen its right. Lately, South Korea has seen the truth behind these words proven time and time again.

The Korean Government Employees’ Union (KGEU), the Korean Democracy Government Employees’ Union (KDGEU) and the Court Government Employees’ Union’s (CGEU) recent decision to merge into a single union 120,000 member-strong was accompanied by a decision to join the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU). Omni-directional repression from Lee Myung-bak administration, which has a basic policy of intolerance towards all critics and opponents, was not only predicted, but also realized as broad-ranging limitations on political activities by members of the government employees’ union, prohibition of all activities critical of government policy by these workers, union leaders’ dismissals, and efforts to close the union’s office went into effect. The Lee administration seems to think that the way to become an advanced nation is by keeping mid to lower-level government workers lying low and following orders from the state aristocracy, as they were in the authoritarian era of the past.

Pierre Bourdieu divided the state into a right hand and a left hand. The right hand, consisting of the economic ministries and senior bureaucrats, is subsumed into and managed by market powers, while the left hand, which concerns itself with labor, health care, education, welfare and so forth, lays out expenditures for the people’s welfare. The tension Bourdieu alluded to between the state’s social and economic sectors has manifested itself in the various administrations of Europe as a tension between left-handed ministries of labor, education and welfare and right-handed economic ministries. The people in these offices may be from the same political parties, but they engage in fierce debates and even fight like political opponents at times. In this, there is no difference here between left-wing and right-wing administrations.

In a country such as South Korea, however, where the Labor Ministry is essentially a second financial ministry and the Ministry of Health and Welfare is all but inert, the heavy burden of the state’s left hand must be borne in full by organized government employees in mid- to low-level positions. In that sense, the government employees’ union cannot avoid becoming the target of suppression efforts by the state’s right hand, since that hand can only do as it pleases once it has first neutralized the curbs presented by the left hand. This is even more true for the inflexible Lee administration.

As a result, special attention and unity in civil society are needed to support the unified government employees’ union. Public official society has been unable to escape from pre-modernity and irrationality, founded as it is upon an ideological hemiplegia where we still hear rebukes like, “How can you call a government employee a laborer?” Mid to low-level government employees also cannot be servants of the people as long as they remain nothing more than overseers and servants of the state aristocracy in an authoritarian bureaucratic society. Furthermore, their independent move to merge and become a responsible political entity represents the maturation of democracy in and of itself. As their labor rights and political civil rights expand, our society will mature, and the improprieties and corruption of public official society will diminish.

Of course, the government employees’ union should prepare for its formal launch with self-criticism and reflection. It should certainly fight against repression by the state’s right hand, restructuring affecting government employees, the amendment to the government employee pension law, and the privatization of public enterprises. Moreover, the new union also needs to work hard in order to realize its vow to become a true servant working on behalf of the people, and to gather support from regional citizens and wider public sympathy. Only then can it become the state’s left hand in the true sense, or as Bourdieu described it, “the trace left behind on the heart of the state by social struggle.” 

As one citizen, I will offer a salute of true solidarity at the launch of the unified government employees’ union.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

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