Monday, 12 April 2010

Demonstration Culture!

Over Easter I was lucky enough to be able to go to Marxism 2010 in Melbourne, a worthwhile event in all sorts of ways (my particular highlight, among plenty of rewarding sessions, was being able to listen to Trevor Ngwane, veteran South African anti-privatisation campaigner).

As part of the conference I spoke on some of the inspration and lessons of Korea’s Candelight Movement from 2008. The talk and discussion went fairly well, I think, and, when there’s time, I’ll try and write it all up as a post.

In the meantime I want to offer you a heartening quote I uncovered – as with so much else of value on Korea, from the Hankyoreh - during preparing for my talk. The background is appalling – a plan by the thugs in the GNP to remove the right of free assembly – but the admission itself is fabulous. Here’s ex-Prime Minister Han:

“The government intends to counter illegal strikes and violent demonstrations that could have negative effects on the nation’s economy. To reach the level of an advanced nation, it is necessary to correct the backwardness of our demonstration culture.”

A demonstration culture….what wouldn’t we all give to have one of those?

Right-wing fantasies aside, though, this is of course on a different order to preferring kimchi to marmite, sensible as that preference may be. A demonstration culture is built out of what EP Thompson calls the “moral culture” of the working class; it’s forged by organization, politics, ideas, traditions. Time for the rest of us to get busy.


  1. I wonder if something was lost in translation. Demonstration has different connotations than protest and for instance the Italian phrase "cultura della protesta" is quite effective at devaluing the activity - by conveying the notion that protest is ritual, mere reflex, and that the people involved have no constructive ideas to offer. Which in turn reminds me of this great Italian film aimed at steering the youth away from the sixty-eight movement (in itself a fabulous genre) called "Io non protesto, amo" - I don't protest, I love.

  2. There's no doubt "demonstration culture" is a negative term, and it's a subset of a broader and quite odd discourse around national psyche the right use to try and discredit movements like the Candlelight Movement: Koreans are hot headed and impetuous and so on and so protesters can't be rational as their emotions take over (all doubtless boringly familiar to an Italian...)

    Remember also the scale of repression still a part of daily life there: the argument isn't so often that protesters have nothing to offer and is more that they're dangerous, a source of potential chaos, a destabilizing threat. An editorial in Korea Focus last year talked about "our demonstration culture...still dominated by violence and illegal practices", which gives you some idea of the keywords.

  3. On the linguistic question, I found the original quote and the now former PM Han said "시위문화" (示威文化) which does translate literally as demonstration culture. I think the resonances picked up on by Giovanni also apply here: the sense of an unhealthy, ritualised culture. However, I'd also add that the (I think modern) word for culture (munhwa/bunka/wenhua/文化) in East Asian languages seems to be very tied up with the process of modernisation and becoming 'civilised', ie modern and capitalist. So I always feel that its use in Korean is very loaded with those sorts of modernisation resonances. And in this case the context given by former PM Han's invocation of the developmentalist imperative to catch up with the advanced nations bears this out.

    I sometimes wonder if the developmentalist mentality (developmentality?) on display here has been a more important element of South Korean state ideology than either anticommunism or nationalism...