On “The Description of Bankruptcy”

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‘If you ask for my life, I will stab you in the heart’

1.

Four black and white camera angles show a subway station; no sound. A train arrives, people get on and off. The lights of the next train shine from the tunnel. An agitated man descends onto the tracks. His final moments are recorded in monochrome, 15 frames per second, 13, 14, 15.

In 2006’s “The Description of Bankruptcy”, director Lee Kang Hyun carries forward the haunting violence of this moment, the despair in the jumper’s anonymous fate and the events which would compel it in order to provoke reflection on the financial crisis of 1997 and its aftermath. Images of Seoul are overlapped with radio channel chatter, news reports stream lifestyle advice atop cityscapes. We are taken from one scene to another. Everyday life goes on in industrial spaces; a printing press rapidly stamps paper. Traffic passes through Seoul: ‘People who don’t smile a lot have wrinkles in their face’, a stone-faced man stacks papers in a printing machine, his gloves stained red. ‘…smile out loud as much as you can. One who smiles a lot also has less chance for mental illnesses such as hypochondria.’ Other workers steam-press clothing in a factory with the radio confidently declaring: ‘The time has come when all power comes from the people, as stated in the Constitution article 1.’ We are not given any cues to celebrate. Steam rises from the cloth.

In the subway big English letters declare: ‘Be a professional!’on a billboard featuring a smiling man in a business suit, his gait beckons us to walk with him but meanwhile, morning commuters hurry past. The radio muses: ‘It seems as if the mainstream of this society has been replaced…the active participants in student movements in the 1980s have now become the dominant group in our society…’, but at the same time, ‘more radical and progressive movements have appeared…’

Now a suit-and-tie speaker preaches ‘money wisdom’, intoning to his seated audience that ‘what you really need is self-innovation, self-transformation’ for success. The sun pushes through the smog-filled sky of Seoul. A narrator begins reading off recent statistics on causes of death in the city: ‘More than 10,000 people die without knowing why in the metropolitan area alone from the effects of tiny dust microbes, less than 10 micrometers in size.’ In a gray office, a manager looks over a prospective employee’s resume, nodding and smiling as the narrator notes: ‘Death by intentional self-injury ranked 4th among the entire causes of death’.

Lee Kang Hyun develops this clash of images and information over sixty minutes in order to provoke a totalistic reflection upon life lived in modern industrial capitalism and the aftermath of crisis, using contrast to nullify the sounds and sights of everyday assurances. Hyun traces the effects of the bankruptcy wave on individuals, with testimony by men and women who bear the brunt of the austerities. He skillfully contrasts the survival struggle of debtors under the weight of ballooning loans with a critical perspective on the integration of the 1980s democracy movement, and the role of the laborer in the ‘national working class’.

2.

Two collectors arrive at an apartment and we see it from surveillance cam. They knock on the large steel door and are allowed in. ‘Want lights on?’ ‘Yes’ ‘Stop talking and make the payment’. We see a list of ‘items for seizure’, but no-one is home. The abrasive sounds of a door being sawed open in blackness: ‘We are from the court’; a cut to home video footage where a proud woman narrates to her future daughter, explaining who’s who in family pictures. She points to the cross on the wall; years later she is explaining to her young daughter that soon they will have a bigger house. How did this dream die?

Several young men and women describe their job conditions in interview, detailing their everyday tasks and their ominous accumulation of personal debt. One works on the rails, another in an office during the day, delivering newspapers at night; they describe their gradual reliance on credit to finance their survival: ‘we can have as much as we dream…’. Some do not show their faces.

Standing against a sky of smog caking the city, a tall gray apartment building; the radio again: ‘Our safety can be now secured by 14 songs that clear our heads, and 47 songs that relieve stress…’ Two women with their faces hidden describe the pressure of surviving on credit after their husbands have been laid off over an overhead shot of men in business suits, milling about the floor of the WEF’s East Asian summit. Stockbrokers and investment barons share a laugh. The lips of a woman reflect: ‘We had to depend on this credit card for our living.’

Her worried statement shows a personal example of how the credit expansion which the South Korean state relied on to overcome the 1997 crisis dragged many into a living nightmare of debt. Her story, and the monetary crisis itself developed in the very heart of Korea’s particular experience of industrial capitalism. The series of bankruptcies which would later be understood to have signaled the full appearance of crisis, which under IMF conditions, demanded mass layoffs, cuts in government spending, labor casualization and resulted in skyrocketing unemployment as companies were gradually sold off to foreign capital. All of this was precipitated by the growth of non-performing loans (those near default) in the Korean bank system, which Korean capitalists accumulated throughout the wave of industrial expansion from 1961, in which the state guaranteed borrowing from domestic banks and provided legal leeway for large-scale public works projects carried out by industrial combines called chaebols. These chaebols, which include major corporations such as Samsung, Hyundai, Lotte and so on, were and are mainly family-controlled concentrations of capital, who emerged in cooperation with the military dictatorship in the 1960s largely to attack the entrenched working class of the light industrial sector by shifting the economy away from light industry and into heavy and chemical industries. These workers had managed to raise wages despite the terroristic conditions enforced upon them and the presence of a government-mandated single industrial union, the FKTU. In this shift, the profitability of Korean capital was maintained by intensive state intervention (not untypical of less industrialized economies trying to compete on the capitalist market) and (at least up until 1979) a rigid protectionism. Still, Korean capitalists were not free of their working classes, whose constant wage pressure and constant militancy contributed to the accumulation of debts and foreign loans on Korean capital. Wage struggles were continuous despite the fact that, on the shop floor at least up until the late 70s, working conditions consisted of “low wages, long working hours, intense flexibility, permanent social control through tying the wage-earner to the company, military occupation of the factories in response to any social conflict, and so on.”(1) Nevertheless, the industrial expansion had by the mid-90s put South Korea on the map as an ‘Asian Tiger’, a ‘capitalist success story’ for the ‘third world’. Prosperity was however, pregnant with crisis.

The persistent series of struggles waged by the Korean working class in the late 80s and early 90s (300 strikes in the first three months of 1989 alone), accompanied by a growth in interest rates (in order to attract foreign investors), contributed to the exponential growth of bank debt in chaebols such as Hanbo, Jinro and Kia, squeezing the margin of profitability for most firms beyond the breaking point. Hanbo steel was the first corporation to go into default, despite massive bail-out efforts, and it was soon joined by many others as the wider East Asian economic crisis hit. Bankruptcies snowballed, the stock market experienced successive single-day losses of 7, 8% and the Korean won went into free fall. Lower profitability on capital, bankruptcy and defaults meant spiraling unemployment and the sale of unused fixed capital via buy-outs and mergers; Kia was acquired by Hyundai, Daewoo was sold to GM. To somehow re-establish a rate of profit, one attractive to foreign speculators, the South Korean government called on the IMF for emergency stand-by loans. The conditions of structural adjustment dictated that, in order to re-establish the availability of banking capital and therefore the credit rating of the country as a whole, money would have to be summoned from somewhere, given that when fears of default on existing loans hit large investment groups, banks are liable to be stripped of capital in massive sell-offs. Structural adjustment meant among other things expanding consumer credit lines across the board as newly casualized workers struggled to survive within unemployment rates of as much as 33% and heavy inflation. If it was the beginning of the end for capital’s crisis, the credit expansion had brought a renewed suffering for the majority of the population. The subjects of “The Description of Bankruptcy” endure this aftermath.

3.

Investors cordially mill about the floor of the World Economic Forum, holding drinks. Now demolition: what was once a neighborhood of apartment buildings is being demolished by cranes, crushed concrete slabs litter a massive plaza bordered by a few remaining high-rises.

Our subjects begin describing their reproduction: coffee in the morning, preparations for work, the commute, the day care, the rent; how to enjoy the free time left to them. A claw plunges into a pile of concrete, extracting a clod of steel wire. Red lips lament, she pays the interest on one credit card with another, her insolvency spirals, her family family is evicted from their house. She had to beg another family to move into a small warehouse they own. A television monitor broadcasts the speech of a student movement veteran on stage, celebrating an electoral victory. Bright lights shine on her face: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we won!’. The crowd cheers and people wave fans. Who won?

A loan officer in a gray explains: ‘…they requested us to provide our BIS (Bank for International Settlements) capital adequacy ratio; what they mean by this is that when the bank collapses, they want to determine if we have enough capital for them to retrieve.’ Investors mill about the WEF floor. ‘Banks have watched the big corporations go bankrupt, which have been considered the safest. So, who would provide loans to these groups, when their BIS capital adequacy ratio goes down? As a result, they had to find safer ways to manage their assets, and this led to a larger proportion on household capital.’

We return to the woman with red lips, she describes the warm words of the credit card company: ‘strangely enough, the card company was really nice when I opened my credit card account.’ But what seems like a way out soon leads to a spiral of credit; one by one, other interviewees relate their collapse into insolvency. ‘The data of the Bank of Korea itself, which used to focus on corporate loans now focuses on household loans after 2000.’ A housewife tells us: ‘since we have a certain amount of money to pay each month, what we can do is to decrease what we eat. But we can’t stop eating to pay the debt.’ The tempo is raised and the testimonies overlap, repetition implies an overall pattern. Director Lee gives the impression of consumer credit circulating in a broken, discontinuous loop. Songs of the student movement ring out, sung by white-shirted activists on stage. In the crowd people are embracing. There is brief sense of unity, but now we view the scene from a television monitor. Everything is dark except for the image; the scene is externalized, we stand outside of it.

On television, a crying woman clutches her grandmother; her eyes are a well of tears. No words are exchanged in the flood of tears. A man breaks down on television describing how he meticulously cleaned the fingers of his wife as she died of polio. We sense a cathartic event taking hold. Silent white text on black narrates: ‘Collective wailing on a grand scale except for a 1% or 2% who will never get hurt by anything’. A woman considers: ‘If i had used my credit card right, nothing would have happened. I am living like this because I did it wrong, right?’ She goes through the motions: ‘…that’s the price i have to pay…for what i spent’, but she doesn’t seem convinced. An elderly debtor appears on television behind a facade wall, we see his shadowed outline behind the stage. He describes the hardship his debt has meant for his family, and swears that he will find work, that he will reform himself: ‘I will do my best…I will pay the debt’. The crowd applauds.

5.

What brought us here?

The film rewinds to the black and white, to images of the post-war past. President Yoon addresses thousands of assembled public works laborers: ‘Whatever direction we had taken so far, from now on, we have to be a new person, with a new decision to make this country a wonderful nation’. The workers are lined up in their thousands, in disciplined blocks, wearing blue jumpsuits and hardhats. Several different scenes are shown in simulacra, shot after shot demonstrates the workers organized in ranks. The television reports: ‘The company Dukooraba decided to make more use of lunch time, by finishing eating in 30 minutes and going back to work.’ Factory scenes pass before us, we move with a crane across acres of steel rolls, a dam project and microelectronics; over 50 years of industrial history. Clips of crowds marching with banners, of mass parades; one marching man’s sign reads: ‘No to foreign goods’. A radio voice celebrates ‘raising the consciousness of the workers…the beautiful picture of the workers committed to nation building’. Now, ‘Korea is 5th in the world for electronics, 6th for steel…there are signs of ‘stable growth in the whole society’! A man speculates: ‘there used to be a conflict between labor and management, but in this year, both parties seemed to agree on the great cause to revive the national economy’. In a yellow-walled factory, a man cranks an assembly line and bends his head in exhaustion. His fatigue assaults us: when the ecstasy of national pride has rusted, what is left but the factory walls?

Social consensus was a tense prospect during the 1980s given that the ruling class had to ensure that factory-floor mobilizations of workers against the dictatorship did not escape strictly political, democratic forms, since the level of activity and repression threatened to overflow. A system of social consensus was advanced in the 1990s by “agreements between the FKTU (Federation of Korean Trade Unions) and the ANB (Association of National Businessmen) in 1993, and the establishment of the Committee for Reform of Employer-Employee Relations in 1996.”(2) The establishment of what could be called a ‘labor settlement’ came in two stages. A coalition effort by the FKTU and the more militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU, which had developed during the democratization movement and yet was still illegal) together with the government deteriorated in late 1996. When the ruling party tried despite this, to rush through reform of the Trade Union laws which meant a severe casualizaiton of workers and an attack on workplace labor organization in early December 1996, militant KCTU sections called a general strike against the move, launching ‘the largest organized strike in South Korean history’, in which ‘workers in the automotive and shipbuilding industries refused to work…After a single day, the strikes started spreading to other sectors including hospitals. On December 28, South Korean riot police turned violent against the strikers, using tear gas to dispel crowds. Strikers responded by throwing bricks. In late January of 1997, the strike ended…’ with the promise of a renegotiation of the Trade Union Act, this time with both the FKTU and the KCTU and other unions at the negotiating table, which brought many of the most militant forces of 1980s and allowed the government to legitimate trade union activity in general as a ‘labor movement moving in step with the people’. Workers, however, paid a steep price. The new composition of the union movement and its meager victories, such as the rights of teachers to organize (but not strike), were won by accepting attacks on wages, further restrictions on labor organization, the right of companies to lay off workers for economic reasons, the introduction of flexible production and so on. By 1998, at the height of the financial crisis, the privatization of public industries, which had elicited violent strikes even in 1994 and 1995, went largely unprotested, “because it was channeled through tripartite negotiations that included the FKTU and the KCTU.”(3)

The democratization movement had reached a historical limit, setting the stage for similar collaborations in 1997 and 1998. Describing this period, with its widespread labor turmoil, as a ‘recuperation’ would fail to grasp that this integration was not programatically divorced from the orientation of the major unions, the student movement, nor even the general strike called against the Trade Union Act, which were motivated by not only classic demands such as wage defense and protection from downsizing, but quite specifically mobilized for a ‘democratic reform’ of the chaebol system, eliminating public corruption and maintaining the national employment system. Listen to the KCTU explain its objections to the railroading of the initial Trade Union Act: “The second concern was the way the ‘passage’ itself was executed. The unprecedented clandestine pre-dawn session…aroused popular fears about a precipitous rollback in what has always been a fragile and sporadic progress towards democratisation. The Korean General Strike was one of the first massive popular responses to the uncontrolled rampage of ‘globalisation’ which is threatening to reduce systems of social justice and economic democracy to shambles. It also marked the emergence of organised workers as the central engine of democratic progress which has been derailed by elitist politicians and outdated institutions.” And what of the workers who discover that the engine room is plagued by murderous heat?

The contradictory phenomena that “The Description of Bankruptcy” records; on the one hand unrelenting capitalist austerity and antagonism against it, on the other a profound disconnection with the classical promises of industrial development, the mass worker and democratization, are usefully understood in the same framework that the French group Theorie Communiste have developed around the critique of ‘programmatism’ (the phase in which the activity of the proletariat is oriented around the program of labor as such, and in which revolution appears as the liberation of that labor) and the theory of the restructuring which follows that phase. “The Description of Bankruptcy” describes the fallout from these events, mulling over the status of the ‘mass worker’. The Fordist mode of labor organization, which enabled Korean capital’s expansion and the birth of its industrial work force, is contrasted to the society it has erected, and its racking crisis. We are not introduced to proud workers, only the proletarianized, not in uniforms but dressed plainly, discussing the most mundane aspects of survival. The subjects of the film do not have guarantees, they are overworked and exhausted. The disaggregated workplaces of the interviewed subjects contrast starkly with the archival images of mass industrial organization. There is hardly a ‘mass worker’ among them. In one scene, a man talks to a friend on a windowsill, his body leaning halfway out, soaking in the sun. Another stands outside, idling. They are in pause, they contemplate.

“Currently, anywhere that self-organisation and autonomy triumph, dissatisfaction with them is immediately manifested…Within the current triumphant self-organisation, it is what opposes it which prefigures the abolition of classes. It is not a question of a dissatisfaction with a “recuperated” autonomy, but with autonomy itself in the sense that it is no longer anything other than “recuperated” by its very nature. This nature, consisting of the liberation of the class following from its autonomous affirmation (having “broken” its capitalist social moorings), was the definition of the revolution in the previous cycle; it is now that through which self-organisation and autonomy exist and are consciously experienced as the limit of all current struggles. Everywhere, as soon as self-organisation is established (and currently you can hardly escape it), people are fed up with it; it weighs heavily on the movement. As soon as it is initiated, it “winds us up”, because it reminds us bluntly what we are and what we no longer want to be. It is here, within self-organisation, against it, that the struggle of the proletariat as a class produces its own existence as a class as a limit to be surpassed. ”(4)

Just as the chaebol form found itself in crisis, (5) deeper contradictions in the workers themselves are suggested: that perhaps the long cycle of class struggle, which began from the late 1970s, is in conclusion, or at least deserves to be. All of its popular causes: democratic unionism, the grandeur of massive public works projects, the discipline of a national working class, ‘victories’ of the student movement, the policing of the shop floor, the abstract pressure of capitalist debt, the ‘responsibility’ felt for that debt as well as the anonymous, polluted, concrete city, are laid bare. By allowing these phenomenon to speak for themselves, the film succeeds in describing true social misery and true anxiety, opening the question of whether a new transformation has taken place or if we simply have new scars.

In the final scenes, we return to the election celebration at the public park; but the camera is trained on the crowd, not the performers. Men and women cheer and clap, clad in the slogans of the old democracy movements, singing the old student songs. A man pumps his fist as a voice croons: ‘you are my love, Korean Association of Trade union workers’. Another young man smiles: ‘these days we don’t need extremism or conflict, but rational dialogue.’ Still, we have already seen the contradictions, the demolitions, the evictions, the outpouring of despair, the desperate man in the subway. Our narrator describes the celebration: ‘for anybody who entered this mortgaged ceremony, the more his eyes are filled with goodness, the more his memory becomes the symbol of complicity.’

The scene has shifted and the music is done. Workers masked in red and black gather under a cloudy sky; they are preparing, even as the rally leaders intone: ‘All citizens, let’s make a big shout of democracy again, OK?’ A cry goes up from the crowd.

Video camera footage of an apartment shows a woman searching through a set of belongings. The camera date is October 17th, 2003. We see a dead body lying under a red rug. Beside the body a person weeps, otherwise there is no sound.

‘Under this warm ceremony of life, a day as cold as ice, and a face hardened as a rock.’ A piano dirge plays. A seated worker; on his back a message reads in Hangul: ‘If you ask for my life, I will stab you in the heart’. Now the masked workers prepare. Holding trade union banners and black and red flags, they snap the ends off, transforming these poles into sharpened, bamboo staves. In kanji the subtitle reads ‘Kougeki kaishi’: ‘Begin the attack’.

Screeners of “The Description of Bankruptcy” are available at http://www.indiestory.com/English/html/indie_filmcontent.asp?filmIdx=712, the film is still touring documentary film festivals. Anonymous individuals have also released the film onto file sharing networks. For an excellent article on Korean working class history, please read Loren Goldner’s “The Korean Working Class: From Mass Strike to Casualization and Retreat, 1987-2008” at http://home.earthlink.net/~lrgoldner/korea.html

1. ICC ‘The “Asian Dragons” run out of steam’, http://en.internationalism.org/ir/89/dragons
2. Korean capital feared another event like December 7th- 9th, 1997, in which the stock market fell 18.2% and 43 billion dollars were withdrawn in a single day.
3. Joe Jeong Hwan, “Class Composition in South Korea since the Neoliberal Economic Crisis” http://multitudes.samizdat.net/spip.php?article1256
4. http://www.theoriecommuniste.org/Theorie-Communiste
5. http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/inst/papers/1999/dp107/#3.3
6. They were in such a state of insolvency that major accountability reform was threatened by the state itself. The boom years expansion had not been able to escape the sagging rate of profit (from 49% in 1986 to a low of 18.6% in 1997), leaving Korean capital more and more unprofitable on a national scale, and in flight towards relatively lucrative waters. Between 1997 and 1999, 11 of the 30 largest chaebols declared bankruptcy, and their political role in Korea has been somewhat reduced.

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