Interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

The Capitalist Unconscious, Hyun Ok Park

The following is an interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

Question: The concept of “the capitalist unconscious” in the book indicates that you take the unification question out of the familiar box of the nation-state system. Can you explain what you mean by “the capitalist unconscious” and how it figures in your book?

Hyun Ok Park: “The capitalist unconscious” provides a conceptual framework for my approach. It places the global capitalist system at the center of historicizing the national question. The capitalist unconscious concerns the sociocultural symbolization of the capitalist system and the historical character of such representation. This book expands the understanding of the unconscious from Frederic Jameson’s political unconscious and its focus on narrative to incorporate corporeal, sensorial, affective, and mnemonic symbolizations. I bring the body, senses, involuntary memory, performative ethnicity, and longing for a stateless nation to understanding experiences of transnational migrants. In fact, the disjuncture among what migrants say, how they say it, what they remember, and what their bodies tell demonstrates their commodified subjectivity as anything but total.

The capitalist unconscious is the historical unconscious that involves the fidelity of the political and the historical. The book shows that one’s experience of capitalism, democracy, and their linkage is organized by the interpretation of crisis (e.g., crisis of industrialism, of socialism, and of migrants and refugees as epochal changes (e.g., the transition from socialism to capitalism, from dictatorship to democracy, and from industrial to financial capitalism). I juxtapose the transition theses of history harbored in democratic politics with migrants’ own flashbacks into history and my accounts of Cold War industrialism—both socialist and capitalist.

Q: How can the understanding of the capitalist unconscious explain your thesis, “Korea is already unified in a transnational form by capital”? This statement will come as a surprise or even a provocation to those for whom the routine questions about Korean unification are whether and when the two Koreas will be unified.

HP: This book proposes a paradigm change on North Korea and Korean unification. I explore the ways that the capitalist unconscious encapsulates the currently unfolding and yet unobserved form of Korean unification that I call transnational Korea. Bringing capitalism into the analysis of the nation-state formation illumines the largely forgotten original and utopian ideal of national unification. It also enables us to historicize ethic national sovereignty. Only when we bring capitalism into the analysis can we discern the otherwise hidden shift of the mode of Korean unification from territorial and familial integration to transnational Korea. The chiasmus in this book is, therefore, not so much between ethnic national sovereignty and territorial integration as between modern sovereignty and global capitalism.

Accordingly, I consider the national unification question a social question, which is irreducible to the return to an undivided Korea or the establishment of a single nation-state. From the beginning, nation and national unification concern social relations of the people. Koreans’ quest for resolving the Japanese colonial legacy and becoming independent from American rule was never separate from transformation of social relations of land, labor, and tenancy. Popular sovereignty, decolonization, and ethnic-national independence were one and the same. Although the rivalry of the two Korean states during the Cold War tethered the matter of Korean unification to the task of creating a single nation-state, the South Korean democracy struggle of the 1980s saw the critique of global capitalism as integral to realizing national unification. In the post-Cold War era, the politics of unification is, in an unexpected turn, articulated with the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism and the war on terrorism.

As a critique of the old and new modes of Korean unification, this book presents various border-crossing interactions among Koreans during and after the Cold War era, including family unions of divided families and diaspora’s experiences, which fall through the cracks of all modes of unification politics since the division. I historicize Korean unification so that we distinguish its current form and envisage a new political possibility. When Koreans in different moments and in various Korean communities state their wishes for Korean unification, they are not to be taken as habitual slips into a received ideology. Instead these statements are harbingers of a utopia desire whose meaning and effect are decipherable only in reference to concrete social relations.

Q: In what ways does this book offer a way out of the current global deadlock on North Korea, which has swung between “regime change” and “engagement” for more than a decade?

HP: Regime change and engagement have developed showdowns in national and international relations, whenever the security of the Korean peninsula is destabilized by the trail of migrants from the north or North Korea’s testing of missiles and nuclear development. As competing measures of democratizing North Korea, proponents of regime change and engagement clash over everything about North Korea from its sovereignty, its migrants and refugees, to its current condition. Their head-on-opposition is, in my view, a spectacle that obscures their undeniable agreement on the neoliberal market system as a democratic force of liberty and peace. The call to protect human rights of North Koreans via regime change binds liberty with the market system and the rule of law. The motto of peace through trade in the policy of engagement with North Korea is a hallmark of the liberal creed that imagines capitalism as democracy.

The antinomy of regime change and engagement turns the decades-old task of national unification into a space of consensus over neoliberal capitalism. The dual unification politics is an act of transference that projects the botched ideals of capitalism onto the other. It distracts attention from the capitalist system’s own crisis around the world that deepens and restructures socioeconomic inequality, unemployment, social insecurity, and debt. Recognition of this capitalist unconscious could help South Korea and the world confront their illusory position as victors in the Cold War and jettison their gazes toward North Koreans as objects of humanitarianism and peace-making. Comprehending the dynamics of the emergent capitalist system would lead South Korea and the world to confront their own capitalist crises and move out of politico-ethical limbo between continued lamentation over the human tragedy caused by the national division and misgivings over unification of the two Koreas.

Q: If bringing capitalism into the analysis enables one to detect transnational Korea—a form that escapes the attention in all political spectrums—what are its key dynamics? How is this transnational community different from the neoliberal borderless community? What contribution does the book make to understanding transnationalism?

HP: I approach transnationalism as a temporal category. Studies tend to conceptualize transnational migration and diaspora as space, with a focus on culture, belonging, and membership. Their key concern is the status of the nation-state and its membership system within contemporary globalization. However, transnational Korea is inextricable from the reconfiguration of global capitalism. The cascading labor chain of Koreans from China and North Korea to respectively South Korea and China not only constitutes their unequal rights and membership, but also renders Koreans in Japan and Russia largely invisible in transnational Korea. The Capitalist Unconscious is thus to be read as a whole, rather than a study of South Korean laborers, of Korean Chinese diaspora, or of North Korean refugees.

The temporality of Transnational Korea is framed by the crisis of industrial modernity—socialist and capitalist—and crisis resolution in the form of neoliberal capitalism. In that regard, this book can be read as a study of crisis. Transnational Korea does not result from South Korea’s victory in its rivalry with North Korea, but rather from the simultaneous crisis of industrialism in each involved Korean community. Crisis is approached in this book as more than a matter of political economy. It is a concern of politics and philosophy that posits the relationship of the past, present, and the future. The Capitalist Unconscious analyzes the ways that paradigmatic democratic politics of the Cold War era—reparation, peace, human rights—project the transition from the past to the future, working as stand-ins for interpreting the present crisis. I juxtapose such temporalization of history as transition with migrants’ own politics of memory, which draws on the history of colonial migration as an ur-history of the present.

When Korean Chinese and North Korean migrant laborers air their desire for a stateless nation in the language of ethnicity, morality, religion, freedom, or defense of work, their desire is paradoxical. It simultaneously expresses their commodification (for aspiring to another border-crossing even after the market failed to fulfill their dream) and harbors an alternative subjectification (for invoking an alternative community other than nation-state). This book demonstrates the importance of mapping the human condition of statelessness deliberated in Hannah Arendt’s seminal work onto a critique of the global capitalist system. For instance, the migrants’ readymade commitment to different national identities observed by Arendt is explored as the desire for a community whose concrete meaning arises from their continuous border-crossing migration as laborers.

Q: Taking into account the long history of imagining capitalism as democracy from the 17th and 18th centuries of Europe to social science studies of international relations, how new is the construction of neoliberal capitalism as democracy that you explore?

HP: I conceptualize the contemporary imagery of capitalism as market utopia. As a new aesthetics of politics, market utopia pledges to reclaim politics from the earlier mass politics. Mass utopia derived from the dreamed image associated with the gigantic scale of industrial production and consumption and imagined possibilities of technology and machinery. Susan Buck-Morss treats the US and the USSR as mirror images of industrial modernism by sharing mass utopia: In the twentieth-century capitalism, the system of private property, and the law of competition failed to fulfill social needs and created the illusion that consumption would provide instant gratification; and in its socialist counterpart, the people also remained imagined masses, since the state never handed over control of the means of production. In this interpretation, the Cold War ended with the breakdown of political legitimacy in capitalist and socialist systems alike.

I investigate the ways that market utopia emerges out of the crisis of mass utopia. Market utopia imagines an all-encompassing power of the market and is concerned with individuals’ freedom, legal rights, and protections from state violence. It negates the very act of grounding sovereignty in the state’s production of the masses and their social life, while opening the backdoor for a return to state centrism. The incarnation of free market capitalism in the neoliberal capitalist era reconstitutes the early European liberal notion of the market as the basis of peace into three repertoires of democratic politics, namely, reparation, peace, and human rights. The shared capitalist logics of these exemplary democratic politics are the sublimation of private property rights, the rule of law, and freedom from the state’s violence. Everydayness, legal fetishism, and ethics are the key zones of market utopian politics.

Q: An emerging question is, then, whether market utopia and the capitalist unconscious in the post-cold war era in South Korea and around the world vacuum up all political possibilities today? If not, what’s the method of recognizing a political possibility that escapes the current democratic activism? What kinds of politics are capable of offering an alternative to narratives of historical progress and historical transitions?

HP: The Capitalist Unconscious presents the notion of historical repetition as an alternative to transition paradigms of history. The post-Cold War era is routinely termed as the move toward democracy, peace, or resolution of previous wrongs. However, it is not rupture but repetition, I argue, that characterizes the relationship of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, more like what Marx said the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The political power of recognizing historical repetition is demonstrated in the following examples.

(i) In South Korea, the 1987 democratization shores up the legitimacy of governments, progressive or conservative, which have advanced neoliberal reforms and repressed street assemblies to protect the rule of law and the private property rights. Workers on strike are branded as terrorists and subject to social expulsion. They are fearful of not just losing their jobs but also their homes due to court orders to pay for damages to the company’s property during demonstrations. In that juncture, they recognize that the state’s violence continues even after democratization and, in fact, with more sophistication. This awakening is the “now” time in Benjamin’s sense, which turns on its head the “once-upon-a time” narrative that is integral to the transition theses that conjecture the past as discrete from and discontinuous with the present. This politico-historical impetus led the workers to reject economic unionism and identity politics of the last 20 years and envisage a new inclusive politics.

(ii) When democratic activism in both South Korea and China is largely inadequate for understanding experiences of Korean Chinese migrant laborers, the latter’s remembrance of the Cultural Revolution as intra-ethnocide (e.g., Koreans killed each other) enacts the dialectics of the past and the present. On the one hand, the narrative brings to the fore the recurrent otherization of Koreans during the socialist construction, which is buried in the universal history of socialism. I ascribe the violence against Koreans to the continued efforts to repress the contradiction between the pursuit of industrialization and the ideal of socialist equality by staging the other. This is an instance where, in Deleuze’s logic, repetition leads to repression, not vice versa. On the other hand, Korean Chinese’s mnemonic narrative affords a critique of their present condition, as it gives them a language with which they interpret their commodification and refugee-like life devoid of protection from home and host countries. I analyze this repeated violence during and after the socialist era in terms of the enduring tropes of dual nationality, primordial community, and stateless nation. This history of Korean minority from the past to the present defies the customary notion of the model minority in China and the politics of decolonization in South Korea.

(iii) When experts debate whether the current marketization in North Korea leads to capitalism and democracy, I locate it within the industrial structure that has been installed and maintained since the 1960s to reconcile rapid industrialization with its socialist ethos. This historical approach to North Korea allows us to understand its Juche revolution not as the personality cult system but as a postcolonial type of permanent revolution. This makes North Korea not exceptional but comparable to other cases of twentieth-century socialism in terms of industrial development, mass politics, and innate crisis. When we embed the recent North Korean migration in the intrinsic and repeated crisis of the actual socialist construction, we can depart from the standard discourse of refugee. A new global response to North Korea, then, is possible beyond the indolent swings of the pendulum between regime change and engagement.

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