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Korean Candlelights in History
Date : 2008-09-01     Hit : 20748


      “The people make history,” often an empty rhetorical device in the mouths of politicians, helps highlight the meaning of recent protests. Looking at the “candlelight revolution,” I observe basic elements of the same form of direct-democracy that emerged in the 1960s. Apparently leaderless gatherings with open mikes bring participants from all walks of life rather than monologues from “prominent” individuals. Rotation of events’ organizers encourages the participation of many different groups rather than the stifling control of one “key” group. New sectors of the populace (from middle school girls to religious leaders to workers) have continually emerged to join in. Diverging tactics and multifarious slogans reveal inner tensions in the movement. Far from being reflective of weakness, these differences spring from diversity—and hence strength—a vibrant inner dialectic which motivates development and progress. The new form of protests empowers people directly.


      I also detect the enacting of an “eros effect” in which apparently minor protests set off national crisis. The cyber activism of H-generation (Hyperspace) quickly mobilized the entire nation, transforming despondency with 2MB’s election into energetic struggle against him. Dozens of ordinary people were overnight turned into veteran activists. They criticize old-time activists who seek to frame their protests. Like all autonomous movements, they are independent of political parties and guard their precious autonomy by refusing to join any central organization. Rather than merging into old activist (undongkwon) circles, they use cyberspace to synthesize a new form of collective intelligence.


      Larger issues have emerged: Some Gwangju high school students threatened to go on strike if teachers continued to beat and swear at them; around the country, students question the pressures they face to study around the clock and the consequent denial of adolescent playtime; tens of thousands of auto workers have gone on strike because of U.S. beef imports and job related issues. Many people understand that the problem is not just one president, however, avaricious he may be, but the neoliberal world system that brings us—among all its vices and virtues—unhealthy processed foods.


      Like European autonomous movements, what began as single-issue protests have produced a more generalized system critique. Since the 1960s, social movements continually provide astonishing evidence of the capacity of ordinary people to create participatory forms of popular power that energize and enlighten us. In May 1968 in France, the entire country unexpectedly convulsed in near-revolution as organs of dual power sprang up everywhere from the grassroots. Two years later in the U.S., four million students and half-a-million faculty declared a nationwide strike in May 1970 against war and police violence. Although these movements did not take political power, the cultural shift they helped produced means far more freedom for hundreds of millions of people.


      In contrast to European autonomous movements, the festival-like atmosphere here emanates from participation by families, especially mothers with young children, and of course, teenagers who bring their parents along with them. Another difference with Europe’s autonomous movements is the non-violent nature of recent protests. Except for minor incidents of militant confrontations, street actions have largely been festive and expressive, rather than militantly instrumental.


      While unique, the candlelights demonstrations are more about human will and imagination than new technology. The US has as much—if not more—of the same high-tech gadgets as South Korea, yet there is no equivalent movement in the US. The Korean movement’s crystallization of decades of struggles, one of the country’s great resources, explains the difference—and provides the key to understanding the current protests. I think of the weeks of daily candlelight vigils for Ho-sun and Mi-son in 2002, of the 183 days of candlelight struggles in Puan that it took to defeat a planned nuclear waste site, of the tens of thousands of people who used candles to challenge the impeachment of Noh Moo-hyun in 2004, and of the more than 2 years of daily candlelight vigils in Pyongtaek. If we go back even further, candlelight demonstrations appeared during the 1987 June Uprising in both Seoul (June 15) and Pusan (June 17).


      In my conversations here, many people are tempted to frame the new protests in European academic concepts. It strikes me that Koreans’ own concept of Minjung is far more appropriate.  That terms acknowledges the historical continuity in the movement here and recognizes the new international leadership role of Korean movements. From the Gwangju Uprising to anti-globalization protests in Cancun (where Korean farmer Lee Kyung-hae sacrificed his life), Korea now provides inspiration to people worldwide. The movement here has helped to educate us in the West (and around the world) about the power of united people’s movements—of how the multitude can win huge victories. Despite their festival-like appearance, recent protests have demanded “2MB Out!”—not just a few minor adjustments in his policies—and thereby rekindle the Minjung movement’s opposition to authoritarian regimes (rather than reproducing the reformism of citizens’ movements).


      For those who feel Negri’s theories fit here, I offer a word of caution. Twice already Negri has radically transmogrified his thinking. He originally worshipped the working class, but in the footsteps of Marcuse and Gorz after 1968, he came to understand the role of the multitude. Once he admitted his mistaken workerism, he then altered his theoretical framework and embraced Machiavelli and Spinoza while distancing himself from dialectical thought. In rejecting Hegel, Negri wrote in Empire: “The era of imperialist, interimperialist and anti-imperialist wars is over. The end of history has ushered in the reign of peace.” On that point, I wish he were right! He currently embraces the ideal of activists thinking of themselves as “cyborgs”—a mix of machine and human.


      The candlelight protests embrace the purity of human beings, not our pollution by genetic engineering, industrial foods, hormones, pesticides, and all the other “marvels” of modern technology. Eros and the human heart—not cyborgs and Machiavelli—are at the core of recent Korean protests. As their international eros effect is felt, how far the current wave of protests will carry is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain: Ordinary people’s intelligence far surpasses that of existing elites. In this case, teenage schoolgirls make president 2MB look terrible. Whether or not we let our fate be determined by a small coterie of corporate executives and their politician friends is a choice before us.


      The schoolgirls who led the first protests deserve more than simply a verbal thank-you. If it were in my power, I would build a memorial to them so that future generations will continue to be inspired by their example. 
By George Katsiaficas
(This article appeared in  Jumeokbap's 21st  issue of  2008). 

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