Karl Marx & Korean Dramas

There are certain mandates in my life. Compared to others they are few, but they form the bedrock of my existence, at least the last 24 years of my existence when I married Sandy. The first is that whenever (and I mean whenever) we get off of an airplane back in Orange County, prior to going home, we need to stop by a Korean restaurant so she can get her “fix”. (I’m not sure exactly how this works or if there is some form of superstition involved, but there is no use fighting it.)


The second is from time to time (sporadically, thank God) Sandy gets involved in a Korean soap opera. This inevitably leads to her suggesting that I watch it with her. Normally this does not occur until she is three or four episodes into the series (which usually spans 200 seasons each with 45 one-hour episodes). Dutifully as her husband, I put down my book and join her on the couch to watch said drama. She usually pauses the TV to “catch me up”. This is wholly unnecessary since the dramas always follow the exact… same… script.


The CEO of a major company has just died and, evidently in Korea, there is some form of primogeniture, and the eldest son (usually in his mid-thirties having returned from living in the States where he went to Harvard or UCLA for some reason) is instantly placed in the role of the CEO himself. This comes to the chagrin of one of the executives (also in her mid-thirties) who grew up poor, yet somehow gained the education necessary to take on an executive role.


Oh yeah… and no one knows that she was poor, except the new CEO’s brother (the actual biological son of the late CEO), who suspects his older brother was actually adopted. Well… turns out he was right! But through the intervention of some ghosts (yeah, ghosts), plots are foiled, relationships blossom, and the company flourishes.


While the narrative remains painfully the same show to show, there is a subtext worth exploring, specifically, the power relationships that exist between the players. There is a reason the “CEO” features so prominently in these dramas. That title (at least in Korean dramas) has almost regal connotations associated with it. Throughout each episode there is at least one scene where the “king” walks through the company’s cubicles with his retinue and employees stand and bow as he passes. (From an American perspective, this is both profoundly disgusting and sardonically amusing at the same time.)


Marxists would attempt to explain this as an example of capitalism. The CEO “owns” the means of production and exploits the proletariat to maximize personal riches.


The funny thing is that Marx and Engles might have been on to something. (I know, there is a collective gasp coming from my audience now… but follow along… fair warning, though, the air gets a little thin where I am going.)


So, yes… Marx may have seen an imbalance, but the imbalance was not capitalism, or really anything to do with money. What Marx saw was the constant human struggle for position on a hierarchal scale. The economic system is completely irrelevant; the abject tragedy that has manifested in the twentieth century with communist regimes shows empirical evidence of this.


Ironically, a well-educated population living in a capitalist society is the one potential salve to this imbalance. Sadly, that was not a bill of goods that Marx was willing to sell (no pun intended).


Humans are hierarchal creatures. We all have experienced this from the time we were children. Sometimes that hierarchy is imposed on us by others, usually institutionally. Other times the hierarchy organically manifests; this is sometimes referred to as “informal systems of order”.


This is most apparent on that most violent of battlefields: the elementary school playground at recess.


Given limited resources, a sandbox, a handball court, an expanse of grass, children at recess will develop into social groups and begin fairly complex games, activities, and other social dynamics. Inevitably, there will be followers and there will be leaders. These leaders are not permanent fixtures. They serve a purpose, and that purpose is as varied as the members of the social network. Sometimes it is their charisma that provides an attractiveness to the followers, and being in the leader’s good graces cements their position in the larger social hierarchy. Sometimes leaders occur because of resources they possess, from a frog in a pocket, the football, or the ability to enrapture their admirers with stories. Once the utility of their leadership wanes, however, their position on the social hierarchy also becomes jeopardized and they must struggle to find new meaning to their “followers” or end up a “follower” themselves.


Money serves little value in this social dynamic. What the intangible people will crave (really for the rest of their lives) is power.


That is where Marx made his big mistake. It was never about who owns the means of production… it was about who holds the keys to power. Oftentimes this is not the owner of the company or the Korean CEO.


During round one of “wokeness”, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was in control of the Rainbow Coalition. This organization sought to empower minorities, and to specifically achieve that, they needed corporate buy-in. More specifically, they needed money. The easiest way to get that capitalization was to leverage their power against the natural inclination of Corporate America to tell them to go pound sand. Essentially, they told corporations to fund the Rainbow Coalition or suffer the wrath of boycotts and bad press.


Corporate America found that capitulation was ultimately cheaper than resistance and Jesse Jackson got rich.


The ultimate question is not who ended up with the most money at the end of the day, Jesse Jackson or Coca Cola. The real question was who held the reigns of power during that encounter? The question was definitively answered in Jackson’s favor.


The mythical CEO may have boatloads of money (or debt?) and a huge house overlooking the ocean, but his desire to paint his house eggshell white can be completely thwarted by five struggling artists who sit on the Laguna Beach Design Review Board. Who has the power in this relationship?


Ironically, it is capitalism itself that helps to rectify, or at least mollify, this imbalance. The marketplace (generally) finds the motivations of the producer somewhat irrelevant. (I say generally because the identity of the company and its values has always played a role to an extent, now more than ever). But you can be the “wokest”, “coolest”, “Christian”,“progressive” etc. company out there… if your product sucks, you will know it.


Conversely, when you have a “thing” people really, really want, they are all too ready to place their ethics at the curb and buy the damn thing.


So you see (outside of Korean dramas), the CEO having some sense of regal significance misses the mark. The true power dynamics have little to do with titles.


The real struggle, that Marx completely missed, was not “who owns the means of production”; the real struggle is who sits in control in any power relationship. Rarely is that the “boss” or the “owner”.


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