Capitalism, Ennui, and South Korea
… the forces that free market capitalism unleashes are precisely the forces that undermine traditional forms of community and family that once served as a traditional safety net, free from government control. In the West, it happened slowly – with the welfare state emerging in 19th century Germany and spreading elsewhere, as individuals uprooted themselves from their home towns and forged new careers, lives and families in the big cities, with all the broken homes, deserted villages, and bewildered families they left behind. But in South Korea, the shift has been so sudden and so incomplete that you see just how powerfully anti-family capitalism can be
All this is just fine, but I wonder if he and the New York Times haven’t got the wrong villain in mind here.
It’s important to remember the history of programs like Social Security, intended innoculate Americans against socialism with a tiny dose. Sullivan is defending these adjustments as reflecting a conservative outlook, in that the goal is to preserve society in the long-term. But the whole notion that capitalism creates the welfare state–by which I think he means capitalism creates the need for a welfare state–isn’t really that provocative when you think about it. Other forces, like war, do too. So do self-interested profiteers trying to make money off it.
“[G]overnment has been caught by surprise by the quick erosion of the traditional family structure,” in Korea, the Times writes, as if government is even capable of stepping into the breach. Yet what’s going on in South Korea is more profound than something that can be addressed with a simple defense of a modest welfare state. The “dislocations” Sullivan is talking about run far deeper than commerce.
There’s one big thing missing in both the Times article and Sullivan’s essay: South Koreans are the most plugged-in people on Earth, with unbelievable levels of Internet addiction, even among children, which the government has tried to combat (it’s not yet a recognized clinical condition, but surely it describes something). Three years ago a South Korean couple left their three-month old child to die while they raised a virtual one together online. It seems like the big societal problem they’re facing is less hyper-competitive global jungle and more something along the lines of Narcissus or The Wasteland.
Capitalism is a revolutionary force, Sullivan is right about that, but in some cases it’s done pretty well at keeping traditional ways alive. Capitalism is BP and Goldman Sachs, yes, but it’s also Jiro the sushi chef (who, yes, I realize is Japanese, not Korean), toiling away, “exchanging value for value” as Rand would put it, but also keeping a traditional culinary form alive. That’s why I think Sullivan would be better served limiting his critique to, say, financialization or state capitalism. That capitalism “encourages constant travel” doesn’t necessarily mean families will disintegrate; playing video games to the exclusion of those relationships almost certainly does.
I don’t mean to sound anti-technology. I enjoy video games. I am not uncritically supportive of capitalism either. But to blame social disintegration entirely on it, and to define it in only its most global, powerful forms, is a reductive trick most often used by leftists.
Sure conservatives have a duty to tend to the world they helped make, and I’m willing to accept that this implies the existence of some kind of welfare state. The question is how much of a cost are you going to impose on society to mitigate forces as powerful as capitalism itself, the sort of things ripping Korean families apart.