On June 25, 2021, the eleventh lecture in the Academic Frontier series titled “Democracy as the Threshold of Evil: Democracy Without Others and Its Dilemma” was delivered by Kim Hang (Yonsei University).
What is “evil” in politics? Kim, a specialist in political thought and the history of Japanese thought, defines politics in a broad sense as utterances and actions that operate in, or open up, areas of indetermination amidst public matters. As such, politics consists in reflexive and performative activities that are always already returning to the original chaotic state of nature. When this movement of politics stops, Kim argues, humans fall into self-alienation, acting according to an already established public order and losing their agency as decision makers about themselves. Therefore, Kim proposed, we should provisionally think of evil in politics as that which halts politics.
According to Kim, evil in the above sense lurks in the very idea of democracy as the self-government of the people. In the Geneva manuscript of On the Social Contract, Rousseau writes that we can be humans only when we are citizens. The fundamental paradox here is that the status of citizen, which constitutes only a part of the whole of humanity, becomes the very condition for participation in human self-government, and therefore the condition for treatment as a human being. Although the concept of citizenship is necessary for the practice of democracy, it betrays its limit at the same time.
As a concrete example, Kim introduced a novel by Kim Sojin, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1991). Based on a democratization struggle in Korea in 1991, the novel sharply depicts how the community of “good citizens,” in the minds of the movement leaders, excluded homeless people, who were in fact actively participating in the movement. This makes it explicit that the democratization of Korea was accompanied by a process in which, against the background of economic prosperity since the 1980s, the image of clean and neat good citizens, and not that of human beings as such, came to be established at the center of the new political regime.
Another expression of this dynamics of exclusion can be found in the writings of Shigeru Nambara. A dedicated democrat and the first president of the post-war University of Tokyo, Nambara advocated a national community of the sovereign and the people as the ideal of post-war Japan, saying “now that foreign races have left, Japan has returned to its pure state” (“What Makes the Fatherland Rise” (1946)). Nambara’s democratic ideals were clearly supported by the conception of “pure Japan,” which, in turn, presupposed the exclusion of Taiwanese and Korean people, that is, exactly those people whom Japan itself had tried to assimilate.
How can we resist this tendency towards exclusion, which is a violation of democracy and its fundamental condition at the same time? Kim closed the lecture by suggesting that we should tackle contemporary issues such as hate speech in light of this fundamental dilemma of democracy.
Reported by Yuki Ueda (EAA Research Assistant)