What would you call a society in which everybody is an equal, everyone gets a fair chance, but is at the same time cruel and destructive in a way never before seen in history? The new Korean series Squid Game models this kind of social situation in an abstract way: It depicts a scenario in which debt-ridden people play a series of children’s games to potentially win a huge jackpot, if they advance (or die, if they lose).
I believe that Squid Game is one of the best aesthetic depictions of the essential situation of capitalism: it reveals the destructive social fabric that capitalism generates, especially the profound barbarism that exists in our society behind the thinnest of veneers. It is hardly surprising that the series comes from South Korea, a country that has undergone capitalist development in one of its purest, most savage versions recently.
The “updated” children’s games that appear in the series have much in common with modern team sports, almost all of which – soccer, American football, basketball, and baseball among others – were born in the nineteenth-century epoch of industrial capitalism in the US and the UK. What is remarkable about these games is not play, which even animals do, but rules. The concepts of fair play and an equal playing field both belong to this new world of rule-based interactions, reflecting the novel social situation typical of capitalism in which birth status, station, and caste do not, in principle, affect one’s position in the society. This differs sharply from the feudal, tributary, and slave-based societies that preceded capitalism.
Needless to say, a formally “equal playing field” – both in the series and in sports – does not guarantee a fair outcome. As if to underline the parallels between team sports and capitalism, winning sports teams today, which are billion-dollar industries, are usually those with the most money. The Nation’s sports editor David Zirin has eloquently expressed this contradiction between abstract rules that are fair versus unfair concrete reality by saying: sports are built on the myth of inclusion and the reality of exclusion. Ditto for capitalism.
From Europe, capitalism spread throughout the world, and much of capitalism’s culture, including modern sports, went along with it. South Korea has lived through one of the most accelerated processes of capitalist development in recent times, having gone from a backward country to a world leader in the space of just a half century. A cruel war, instigated by the US, in which more than five million people died, provided a training ground for key principles of capitalist behavior: no one will help you, to lose is to die.
In the series, the rich (the VIP spectators) are depicted as animals, insofar as they wear buffalo, bear, owl, and lion facemasks. More importantly, they are driven by mere appetites and a hunger for blood sport. This is also true of the capitalist situation. Animal instincts are raised to a guiding principle, while rational planning, affection, and care must take the backseat. The rich are neither really free nor fully human – they must, after all, pursue profit or sink and lose their class status.
Meanwhile, both in the series and in reality, the only glimpses we get of truly human gestures take place among the oppressed. Hence, we are offered a brief window in the series on a different, more positive type of social relation when desperate players make nearly suicidal decisions, for instance, not to finish off a losing opponent. The rich see these expressions of solidarity as plain crazy; they cannot understand them. Their preferred relation to human beings is neatly summarized by the human furniture they employ in the VIP lounge.
The series’ creators seem to be more than aware of the meaning of the parable they offer us. In a telling moment, for example, the Squid Game players vote to end the games and return to their daily lives. Yet they all come back to the games very soon. They conclude that the hellish situation outside is not at all different from the one inside. Similarly, viewers of the series need only look away briefly from the screen to confirm that the same hellish principles apply in their own reality.