Nationalism and mass dictatorships

Professor JieHyun Lim, the director of the Research Institute of Comparative History and Culture at Hanyang University believes that nationalism is an act of treason and it only limits the capacity of imagination.

Following the recognition of a nation’s sovereignty followed by the American and French revolutions, nationalism has become one of the most profound modern movements in the world. However, as every ideology has its flaws, nationalism also has its own problems. In a globalized society where interaction of information, labor, and products among nations are common and even necessary, the concept of nationalism may at times seem likely to backfire. Professor JieHyun Lim, the director of the Research Institute of Comparative History and Culture (RICH) at Hanyang University (HYU) believes that nationalism is an act of treason and it only limits the capacity of imagination.

Lim has been a fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin, a visiting professor of EHESS in Paris, and a visiting scholar of the Harvard Yenching Institute, to name a few of his accomplishments. He is also a member of the International Committee of International Labor History Conference based in Linz, Austria and was the co-chair of the East Asian History Forum for Criticism and Solidarity. He has had numerous volumes published including Gender Politics in Mass Dictatorship: Between Self-empowerment and Voluntary Mobilization (Palgrave, 2011) and Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Volume 6, Issue 3. Moreover, Lim has posted more than a hundred columns for dozens of newspaper including Chosun Ilbo, Hangyore Shinmun, Dong-A Ilbo, KyungHyang Shinmun, Asahi Shimbun, Gazeta Wyborcza, and Przeglad Socjaldemokratyczny.

To learn more about his academic journey and philosophy, Internet Hanyang News met with Lim to obtain more details.

Q. Nationalism itself seems to bring out benefits such as patriotism. Why do you claim it to be treason?

When looking back in history, nationalism has been used as an ideology to gain power. Nazism and fascism are great examples showing how nationalism can be abused. In addition, in a globalized society where individuals connect with the international world, sovereignty, which is a key factor in nationalism, can lead to adverse effects such as limiting the creativity and imagination of individuals. For example, South Koreans are suffering from the yellow dust caused by China’s desertification from mass economic development. In terms of nationalism, both countries are unable to provide solutions. Since China’s sovereignty should be respected, the South Korean government is not taking any form of action. If China’s sovereignty were to be disregarded and the yellow dust issue were to be presented in terms of the negative effects on South Korean citizens, there would most be likely criticism of the Chinese government and then dispute. Instead, the Chinese government simply ignores the consequences of its desertification because they are outside of their nation’s boarder.

This type of narrow-mindedness should be replaced with a new perspective that considers and attempts to understand the position of all nations. In my opinion, transnationalism is the answer. By removing the concept of a nation in one’s mind, collaborative understanding and cooperation with individuals from different states can become a better reality. A great example of transnationalism is Europe. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, a nation that wants to establish a nuclear power plant is now required to gain the approval of surrounding nations. This type of transnational approach should occur more often in an integrated world.

Q. You have coined the term ‘mass dictatorship’. Could you explain what it means?

‘Mass dictatorship’ is an oxymoron. Dictatorship could be defined as the rule of a very small minority who control and manipulate the majority by force (or the threat of) and power. Nazism and fascism, countries and leaders such as North Korea and even former president of South Korea ChungHee Park, are examples of what we call dictatorship. To achieve his or her own goals, a dictator uses force to suppress and thus control the majority.

However, ‘mass dictatorship’ explains the existence and necessity of support and approval from the masses for a dictatorship to exist and continue. Dictators in the past were capable of understanding the desires of the masses and thus utilize this information to manipulate and control the people. When considering former President Park during his regime, there was criticism from the opposition party and student activists, but still elections were held. Even though some past elections were considered illegal a vast majority of the people still agreed with and praised Park. Similarly, such a phenomenon appears to be happening in North Korea. While further research is needed, until the 1980s Dictator IlSung Kim could not have created such manipulative and suppressive dictatorship without the consent and approval of the citizens.

In order to prevent tragedies such as what we are seeing in North Korea, we need to consider the reasons why the masses approve of such dictators.

Q. In previous interviews, you mentioned that intellectuals are responsible for defining what society is for its citizens. Can you describe Korean society?

The foundation on which the Republic of Korea (ROK) was established is democracy. However, democracy itself needs constant democratization. It is true that our economy and political system has improved on the basis of democracy. Nevertheless, our minds and standards are greatly limited. For example, when considering the concept of quality of life, most people place economic prosperity as their top priority. An individual who is paid 50 thousand dollars per year but works 50 hours per week is preferred over a person who gets 40 thousand dollars and only works 40 hours. I am not criticizing this preference of economic value. Rather, my focus is on the limitation of values. Society should become more diversified or democratized in terms of allowing for broader values. Economic value should not be the only criteria of happiness for individuals.

In order to do so, the psyche of our society should change. Behavior is a result of one’s mentality. Therefore, when the masses begin to think beyond traditional values, and as these new perspectives accumulate, a new paradigm of true democracy within the minds of individuals can occur.

Article written by: Jisoo Lee ([email protected])
Photo by Younghyun Kim

Mass dictatorships

Published: 18 Oct 2012


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