Destabilizing the European austerity debate: lessons from labour in post-crisis South Korea
Elisabeth Schober (University of Oslo)
Paper short abstract:
Austerity, in the way it is commonly understood, is made out to be a quintessentially Western tale. By looking at the impact of the 1997 crisis on South Korean labour, I suggest a conceptual framework that allows us to think of European austerity as yet another instance of a wider global trend.
Paper long abstract:
Austerity, in the way it is commonly understood nowadays, is made out to be a quintessentially Western tale, with the Euro-crisis in particular coming to mind. But the understandings packed into this term have a longer historical trajectory, and over the course of the 20th century have come to interact with significantly larger geographical areas than we now often envision. In this paper, I shall use the "Hope Bus Movement" that erupted in South Korea in 2011 to investigate the longer-term impact of the 1997 financial crisis on Korean labour. Similarly to Southern Europeans, who were recently subjected to moralizing claims about their putative laziness, affected Asian populations were during the wake of that earlier crisis told that the downturn was essentially of their own making. Curiously enough, in the most recent round of austerity affecting Europe, South Korea would also come to play a role in public debates, with the image of obedient Koreans who "took the bullet" of austerity in the 1990s being dragged in to discipline European workers who were seemingly in need of reprimand. In contrast to such a usage of the 1997-crisis as a tool to teach Europeans how austerity is to be done, the East Asian way, I suggest a conceptual framework that allows us to think of both European and Korean austerity as instances of one wider global trend. This, I believe, also enables us to draw lessons from the way South Korean labour activists have actually sought to resist structural adjustment.