The Worker Cooperative Movement in South Korea: From Radical Autonomy to State-Sanctioned Accommodation
This article traces the historical evolution of worker cooperatives in South Korea from the years of Japanese colonialism to the current era. It argues that the evolution of the worker cooperative movement from radical agitation to state-sanctioned accommodation has been structured by the nature of state response to cooperative activity. Vigorously resisted by an authoritarian state from the colonial era until the late 1990s, the Korean worker cooperative movement before the 1997 economic crisis was ideologically radical, waging a class-based struggle to overcome poverty, resist the authoritarian state, and transform Korea’s economic foundations in socialist directions. Since democratization in 1987, and the Asian economic crisis in 1997, worker cooperative movements have gradually shifted their once transformational and politicized labor ontology to a deradicalized and more economically focused job-conscious ontology, partly as a result of the state-directed growth of civil society. The worker cooperative movement became less contentious as the state emerged as a collaborator of social economy initiatives. The gains won by radical worker cooperatives in opening space for pluralistic civil society in Korea in the 1980s and 1990s ultimately resulted in the depoliticization and re-incorporation of worker cooperative activists into a moderately reformed political economic system.