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Labour and Resistance in Asia: An Interview with Kevin Gray

by | February 24, 2017

George Souvlis: Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences (academic and political) that strongly influenced you?

Kevin Gray: My undergraduate degree was in Chinese Studies, although I quickly became aware of the limitations of Area Studies in terms of its methodological nationalism and its related tendency to try and explain all social, political and economic phenomena with reference to historical and cultural legacies internal to the country in question. While the thought of Mao Zedong, for example certainly contains within it influences of traditional Chinese literature and philosophy, this hardly seemed adequate to understand the broader phenomena of the Chinese revolution and modern state-building in the country and its broader international context. Yet, there seemed to me at least to be a recurrent tendency to try and explain such processes with relevance to particularist historical-cultural factors. Following graduation, I also spent four years living in South Korea, in Kimpo County to the west of Seoul to be precise, just a few short kilometres from the border with North Korea. Perhaps more than any intellectual influence, this experience of living in what was both an industrial and highly militarised environment led me to become acutely aware of the intersections between developmental and geopolitical trends in the region. According to the popular narrative, South Korea had at that time just graduated from developing to developed country status only to be hit by the Asian economic financial crisis. At the same time, the engagement strategy with the North pursued by the Kim Dae–Jung and then Roh Mu-Hyun coincided with a vigorous popular movement against the role of US militarism in the country, which led me to develop an interest in the role of social resistance to both neoliberalism and US imperialism. As a result of these intellectual and personal experiences, I opted to study International Relations at postgraduate level in order to develop my analysis of such trends. After a brief flirtation with World Systems Theory, I found that with Gramscian approaches to International Relations I was able to develop a framework that could incorporate quite complex interconnecting processes of the politics of capitalist industrialisation, geopolitics, and social resistance. These are still very much the issues that drive my research, both in relation to East Asia and more broadly.

Your first study, Korean Workers and Neoliberal Globalization, is a political investigation of the trajectory that the Korean labour movement followed during the era of late capitalism. Could you elaborate on the process of its formation, how this happened within the hostile conditions of authoritarian developmentalism? Can be explained with reference to macrohistorical process of the relocation of the production that took place from the mid of 1970s? What were the additional factors that contribute to its emergence? What happened in the Korean labour movement after 1997 when the government of the country brought in a set of neoliberal labour laws? How the labour movement reacted to this process of the neoliberal restructuring?

In many respects, the emergence and character of the South Korean labour movement is intimately tied up with the country’s position on the front line of the Asian Cold War in Asia and the related state-led drive for catch-up industrialisation. Though the country’s tradition of working class militancy dates back to the opposition to Japanese imperialism in the 1930s, the modern democratic labour movement as we know today had its origins in the in the export-oriented light industrial sector that emerged in the post-war era under the guise of the developmental state. This sector contained a largely female workforce that resisted the patriarchal labour relations that underpinned the country’s rapid economic development. For the most part, however, labour market conditions, the tight profit margins in these industries, and extreme management and state-led repression meant that many of these struggles were unable to achieve lasting gains in terms of establishing independent democratic unions.

The 1970s saw a marked worsening of South Korea’s geopolitical environment, to which the government responded by launching a massive heavy industrialisation programme. This led to the led to the emergence of a working class movement based more on male workers in large enterprises. This movement possessed greater structural power that was able to make a more lasting impact on the country’s labour relations. Following the democratic transition in June 1987, it was this movement that went on to one of the largest mass strikes in world history. In this regard, it can be said that the South Korean case had much in common with other newly industrialising countries such as Brazil, South Africa and Poland. It should be noted, however, that South Korean development was facilitated by the state borrowing on international capital markets and then investing those funds in domestic conglomerates. Foreign multinationals in fact played a relatively limited role. In any case, the workers’ uprising of 1987 was as much a reaction not just against exploitative labour relations at the point of production but against the broader legacies of the state’s authoritarian model of catch-up industrialisation and its impact on industrial relations.

This much is well known, of course. The South Korean labour movement has become known globally as an example of militant unionism emerging to challenge a highly authoritarian political system. What particularly interested me, however, was how this independent labour movement subsequently adapted to the processes of formal democratisation that began in the late 1980s. Following the democratic aperture, new questions were posed as to what the labour movement’s role should be under formal democracy. Some on the militant wing of the labour movement argued that the class-based militant character of the movement should be nurtured and extended, since according to this analysis, democratisation had done little to alter the reality of the exploitative nature of capitalist labour relations. The mainstream view, however, was that under conditions of formal democracy, the labour movement should adapt to the new environment and achieve gains beyond increases in wages and working conditions and the democratisation of unions. This argument went that the democratic labour movement should seek to achieve gains through participation in national policymaking forums and through building cross-class alliances. Attempts were subsequently made to borrow from European examples of “neo-corporatism” and from South African experiments with “social unionism.”

What these latter comparisons failed to take into account were the fact that despite an outward appearance of militancy, the South Korean labour movement was in organisational terms quite weak. It is true that the South Korean labour movement received global attention during the general strike of December 1996 and January 1997, suggesting for a moment at least the ability of labour movement to achieve widespread public support. However, the endemic organisational weakness of the movement meant that attempts to participate in national policymaking forums were not backed up with strong bargaining power. The tripartite agreements made in the aftermath of the 1997 financial crisis, for example, represented more a capitulation to the demands of state and capital for neoliberal flexible labour laws in exchange for some formal recognition of union rights.

The problem with this quid pro quo of labour rights for neoliberal reform was that the financial crisis and its aftermath led to a radical restructuring of the labour market in South Korea. The majority of job creation in South Korea since then has been in the realm of contingent irregular labour, and as a result, the country has seen greatly increased levels of inequality in the country. Despite formal recognition of the democratic labour movement, the fact that industrial-level unionism remains weak and the labour movement is mainly organised around large enterprises means that the contingent labour force has remained largely unprotected and unorganised. In some sense, this state of affairs has even been encouraged by the some of the mainstream unions since the irregular labour force serves as an expendable realm of workers that can easily be laid off while the regular unionised workforce represent the minimum that can be retained at times of economic downturn. Of course, there are many important struggles taking place that are aimed at challenging this deepening labour market dualism, but the historical trend since the 1997 economic crisis is clear.

One of the theoretical arguments that informs your first study – sharing Stephen Gills conception of the “double transition” – is that the democratization process that spread with the Washington consensus weakened the social forces that might be expected to facilitate radical change. Could you elaborate more on this argument and give the historical context from which it derives? Did something similar happen to other Asian countries as well that experienced the process of democratization?

As I mentioned, the South Korean case presents a clear example of this “double transition.” Since the transition to formal democracy in the late 1980s, it cannot be denied that labour’s formal freedom of association has increased significantly. The democratic labour movement has been effectively legalised and the umbrella organisation, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, has been able to operate legally. Nonetheless, these advances in legal recognition have been achieved at the same time that neoliberal restructuring has increasingly served to weaken labour solidarity though encouraging the growth of a dualistic labour market. There is also the fact that prior to the late 1980s, the unambiguously authoritarian political system unwittingly served to encourage a cross-class solidarity that extended beyond labour towards the middle class and to the students. With democratisation, state and capital via the country’s conservative media have been able to portray labour as just one amongst many “self-interest groups.” It is correspondingly harder for labour struggles to achieve widespread social support.

In addition, the democratic system retains powerful mechanisms through which labour struggles can be repressed. Individual striking workers can be sued for economic damages inflicted on their employers through their participation in industrial action. Under South Korea’s National Security Law, political parties established by labour can be banned due to alleged “pro-North” sympathies. Furthermore, legitimate public protest can be proscribed and its organisers imprisoned. Thus, while the political system is formally democratic, the climate for labour activism remains repressive even if that repression is conducted under more technical legalistic means. This means that while South Korea may have made more progress than many countries of the so-called “Third Wave” of democratisation, its democratic political system remains limited in the sense that the role of mass organisations as a countervailing force to the prerogative of state and capital remains weak. Similar processes can be seen elsewhere, of course. In Taiwan, for example, industrial hollowing out and the shifting of manufacturing to mainland China has done much to weaken the organisational potential of the labour movement. Politics there remains centred on identity issues and on the question of the appropriate relations with China, to the expense of more class-based and labour issues.

Ιn 2012 you edited a book along with Barry Gills titled People Power in an era of global crisis: rebellion, resistance and liberation. Could you explain the structural background of the resistance that is developing around the world? Which are the commons denominators that you detect between the different forms of protests that are taking place? Is it just a demand for more substantial democratic representation on behalf of the people or there is something more than this?  What do you think are the main differences between the current protests and those of 1968?  

On the 25th anniversary of the People Power Revolution in the Philippines, we asked in this book a retrospective question of whether initial analyses of these transitions as instances of “low intensity democracy” had held true. Perhaps not surprisingly, we found through a number of case studies the salience of continuing contradictions between neoliberalism and the spirit of democracy. One theme that arose repeatedly was how the coming to power of relatively progressive governments in the immediate aftermath of those transitions had coincided with and in some cases had furthered processes of neoliberal restructuring. From the outset, therefore, the double transition meant that very few of transitions had facilitated the emergence of progressive left or labour parties that had represented advancements in social justice and welfare. The deepening of neoliberal restructuring instead caused a degree of alienation from the formal party politics, which in part explains the reversal back towards conservative politics in several of the cases that we examined.

It would seem then that there are clear parallels with the emergence of new far-right parties and movements in many European countries. Sustained neoliberal restructuring and deepening levels of inequality that have served to both to weak social solidarity and created an atmosphere ripe for regressive political projects. Mass movements that might traditionally have been expected to resist neoliberal structuring have themselves been undermined by neoliberal restructuring. The exact form that the regressive turn in politics takes is, of course, highly dependent on individual circumstances. In many of the newly-industrialised countries that we examined, processes of the formation of a working class-for-itself has been weaker than in Europe, though immigration has not become such a toxic political issue as it had done in many countries in the West. Nonetheless, the parallels are clear.

In 1997-1998 saw the “Asian Crisis”. Could you give the context of this? Do you think that it reasserted the West’s political and economic dominance over the global south? What were the main geopolitics shifts that it triggered?

In an immediate sense, the Asian financial crisis was a result of a speculative boom amidst the euphoria surrounding emerging markets in the 1990s. However, the dominance of the IMF and the World Bank in the subsequent bailouts reflect the lack of regional institutions that could effectively manage the crisis themselves. This a legacy of the post-war geopolitical strategy adopted by the United States.  In contrast to Europe, the US had in the post-war era deliberately worked to forestall the emergence of strong regional institutions East Asia that might conceivably serve to challenge American hegemony in the region. During the crisis, the US was for example hostile to Japanese proposals for a regional monetary on the grounds that it might undermine the role of the IMF and the Washington Consensus. However, the ability and willingness of the US to impose neoliberal structural adjustment on the region also reflects the geopolitical shifts after the end of the Cold War. In the early post-war decades, the US had tolerated illiberal models of political economy due to the fact that these countries were on the front line of the Cold War and played the role of forward defence states. With the rapprochement with China in the 1970s, the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and the growing challenge that the East Asian miracle economies posed to US manufacturers, the Asian crisis provided an opportunity for the US through the IMF and the World Bank to “level the playing field,” so to speak, and facilitate a dismantling of the development states and imposition of free market economics.

Certainly, this was at the time interpreted as a victory of the West over Asian capitalisms. This notion of Asia as “victim” perhaps underestimates, however, the degree to which the exhaustion of the developmental state model had already led to the emergence of liberalising coalitions within those countries themselves. Furthermore, a key response to the crisis on the part of Asian governments was to increase their foreign exchange reserves in order to protect themselves against speculative movements of capital. As we’ve seen, this fuelled the liquidity that underpinned the global financial crisis. This was of course a crisis that impacted upon the West more than on Asia, and perhaps more importantly, served to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy and the right of the West to lecture the global South on “sound economic management.”

One decade later another global economic crisis burst, this time in West. To which extent do you believe that this crisis was an opportunity for the rising powers of the global South to rearrange their power position within the capitalistic economy? More precisely, which do you think is the role of Brics in the post-2008 global geopolitical scene?

Clearly the global financial crisis has provided an opportunity for the global South but whether this is an opportunity for progressive change with positive implications in terms of social justice globally is highly questionable. What seems apparent is that the BRICS countries have largely used their increased weight in the global economy to push for greater influence within the existing system of global governance rather than seeking to challenge that system. Though such efforts are often framed in the language of South-South cooperation, it is in reality something qualitatively different to post-war efforts at solidarity amongst newly decolonised countries. While there is arguably more intellectual and policy space now for non-neoliberal models of development, what is becoming clear is that the increased political influence of the BRICS had much to do with the global commodity boom caused by China’s rapid economic rise. This again underlines the fact that the rise of BRICS was more a reflection of their integration into the global capitalist economy rather than a challenge to it.  In terms of how these processes will play out, the fate of the Chinese economy and increasing levels of debt is obviously of crucial importance here, but to be honest I am no more able to predict what will happen than anyone else.

In your next study, Labour Development in East Asia: Social Forces and Passive revolution, drawing on the analytical tool of passive revolution you demonstrate the dialectic between the subordination of labor and the international geopolitical dynamics underpinning East Asian development. How did the Gramscian concept helped to conceptualize your study? What type of passive revolution took place in East Asia?

This book aimed to address what I saw to be a lacuna in the existing literature on East Asian development. The well-known developmental state literature mainly focused on institutional forms and specific policies, but in my view, it paid insufficient attention to the fact that rapid export-oriented growth in East Asia was fundamentally based upon the subordination of labour. For those that did take note of this, there was usually insufficient explanation of the origins of this region-wide subordination. As I argued, this subordination needs to be understood as an historical outcome of the US intervention in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In cooperation with capitalist elites in the region, the US played a proactive role in repressing workers’ movements and left-wing forces more broadly, and subsequently, in building the coercive institutions that would keep labour reppressed. I interpreted this as an instance of what Gramsci termed “passive revolution.” I argued that passive revolution captured the specific nature of the politics of late development, whereby state elites would seek to tackle both the threat of social unrest from below as well as the geopolitical/economic challenges emanating from abroad through a top-down “revolution from above.” In East Asia, this took the form of an extraordinarily repressive form of capitalist industrialisation.

However, the aim of the book was also to overcome the methodological nationalism of existing approaches and show how the experiences of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China were integrated into a singular regional production system. In this sense the passive revolution can be considered regional in scope. With parallels to Beverley Silver’s study of the global dynamics of labour unrest, I showed how the rise of working class movements led to the spatial restructuring of production within the region.  However, I also sought to emphasise the political dimensions of this process, which I felt to relatively neglected in Silver’s work.

Let’s focus on China’s economic development. What was the role of the Communist Party in the process of the neoliberazation of Chinese economy? How and why they forged this process?  How can the recent worker’s resistance be explained?

On the one hand, it may seem odd to interpret the Chinese experience as part of this broader regional process, given the country’s experience of socialist revolution. It should be noted, however, that many of the interventions made by the US and US-backed political forces in the region were in fact partial emulations of aspects of the Chinese revolution. In line with Gramsci’s understanding of passive revolution, the land reform in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, for example, was a manifestation of the manner in which top-down reforms take the form of partial concessions to restive subordinate classes. By doing so, governments were able to resolve the politically contentious land issue and thereby the key grievance for peasants in the region. The manner in which Chinese workers were basically deprived of substantive rights and incorporated into state corporatist institutions also has parallels with subordination across the region.

In line with Gramsci’s analysis, however, we can also interpret the Chinese reform era as a form of passive revolution. Market reforms have taken the form of a revolution from above, facilitated by the CCP. They have been aimed at responding to the significant changes in global capitalism since the 1970s as well as the obvious economic successes of China’s regional adversaries. One of the key questions being posed now is whether the Chinese working class may develop along the more militant path seen in the newly-industrialising countries. The strike wave in southern China in 2010 suggests some potential for this. It was the first major strike explicitly concerned with wages rather than defensive issues such the infringement of labour rights. There are, however, real impediments to genuine class solidarity in China, including not least, the role of regional identities and the strong state repression of independent labour activism.

Nonetheless, we should not view this as necessary forestalling a more vigorous labour movement. The CCP has been proactive in introducing new legal frameworks designed to ameliorate the more severe infringements of labour rights and provide workers with a channel for the legal resolution of disputes. As many observers have argued, there are indeed serious questions as to how effective such measures are without freedom of association. Yet, in line with the logic of passive revolution, these reforms do represent a partial acceptance of the very changes that the CCP is more broadly trying to forestall since they basically accept and popularise the very notion of labour rights. Here there are parallels with Taiwan in the early 1980s, where a highly authoritarian government sought to weaken the potential for labour unrest through the introduction of new labour law. The weak enforcement of those laws became a continued point of grievance for labour and a key dynamic in the continued development of the labour movement. As such, the broadly history of labour in East Asia suggests that state repression alone does not exclude the possibility of a vigorous labour movement.

Is USA still the global economic hegemon or it is in a process of decline as many commentators suggest?

US hegemony is certainly not indisputable and it is indeed actively disputed. In East Asia, many important struggles are taking place in East Asia against US militarism. For example, struggles are currently taking place against the building of military bases and the deployment of missile defence that mark a dangerous escalation of the arms race in the region. It is necessary, however, to situate this instances of resistance alongside the manner in which tensions within region emerging from the rise of China are creating a rationale for increased pro-US leanings amongst elites. Amidst these dangerous dynamics, it is being left to peoples of these societies themselves to resist the deeply worrying dynamics of greater militarisation and insecurity.

Does North Korea’s economy follow the neoliberal paradigm despite its communist rhetoric? Do you see any resemblances with the Chinese neoliberal road to socialism?

I see my research on North Korean development as an extension of my earlier work on the mutually constitutive relations between development and geopolitics. One of the key questions that is frequently posed about North Korea is why it has not followed the Chinese path of market socialism. Most mainstream analysis focuses on Pyongyang’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and its fear that genuine market reform along Chinese lines may unleash forces that it cannot control. Such views neglect the fact, however, that the North Korean government has over the past few decades made numerous attempts to reform its system of economic management and attract foreign investment. Under the Kim Jong Un government, these attempts bear a close resemblance to the marketising reforms of Deng Xiaoping. There are of course obvious limitations, however, as to how successful these reforms can be in the context of the US-led strategy of containment and isolation of North Korea. Indeed, the North Korean case clearly demonstrates how genuine market reforms require a benign geopolitical environment.

A key context for Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, for example, was the diplomatic breakthrough made with the US in the 1970s and the fact that China was at that stage already accepted as a nuclear weapons state. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, on the other hand, has become a key point of contention with the US. For Pyongyang, the rationale for pursuing nuclear weapons is unsurprisingly the fact that it regards its external security environment as extremely hostile, a view that is difficult to reduce simply to ‘paranoia’ given the mass bombing of North Korea during the Korean War by US forces, the continued strategy of military containment since then, and in particular, the regular military exercises between South Korea and the US, two of the world’s largest and most advanced militaries. In addition, the Bush administration’s “Axis of Evil” rhetoric in the early 2000s followed by the fate of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi have reinforced upon the North Korean leadership the need for nuclear weapons as a means of national survival. Furthermore, the North Korean leadership views nuclear weapons simply as a cheaper option that trying to modernise its antiquated conventional forces.

This state of affairs obviously problematises any Chinese-style attempts at integrating the country into the international division of labour. It serves to strengthen the role of security imperatives within policymaking circles while undermining the influence of more reform-oriented technocrats. When reform policies are adopted, US containment strategies make it difficult to attract foreign investment. International sanctions and financial sanctions, for example, make it next to impossible for foreign corporations to wire money in and out of the country. Of course, the lack of clear property rights domestically also deters foreign investment, but this is not qualitatively different to China in the 1980s and early 1990s, which also lacked a coherent legal framework and the degree and speed of opening up was a constant source of political debate and tension.  It is true though that there is probably greater bureaucratic resistance to the influx of foreign capital in North Korea which comes from a having an economy dominated by SOEs and lacking a vast rural sector where capitalist experiments can take place first without negatively impacting upon the state-owned sector.

This is not to say attracting foreign investment is the only way that North Korea can reform its economy. Foreign capital really only came to play a key role in Chinese development from the mid-1990s. Before then, domestic agricultural reforms played a central role in the 1980s in raising living standards and facilitating relatively equitable growth. More recently, North Korea has similarly adopted a Chinese-style household responsibility system, and by most accounts, North Korean food production has considerably improved with average nutritional standards now comparable to the rest of Asia. The urban areas have also become visibly more prosperous in recent years with the emergence of a quite vigorous informal economy. The fact that this has occurred as increasing stringent sanctions have been applied is quite an achievement.

Nonetheless, the containment policy pursued by the United States is still a considerable impediment to development in North Korea.  Hardliners in Washington still cling to an unrealistic scenario of impending collapse of the country, though we need to wait to see whether the next administration will adopt any new policies towards North Korea. My view is that the signs do not look particularly auspicious on that front.  North Korea serves as an enemy of convenience to the US in that it enables Washington to conduct its strategy of encirclement of China. The tensions on the Korean peninsula mean that the US is able to maintain its military bases in South Korea and Okinawa, and more generally, they enable Washington to keep both South Korea and Japan strongly pro-US in their respective foreign policies. The recent issue of THAAD deployment in South Korea further demonstrates that the North Korean issue has become an essential justification for the encirclement of China with missile defence. Furthermore, regional geopolitical tensions in East Asia are deepening rather than disappearing, with most observers recognising that the US-China relationship is likely to form one of the most tense bilateral relationships over the coming decades. Given this context, even without mentioning the interests of the military industrial complex in the US and in the region itself, there is little justification to expect that Washington and its allies have the political will to devote political effort to resolve the North Korean issue.