Squid Game: No Winners Under Capitalism

Squid Game is the latest production from South Korea that brilliantly exposes the brutal reality of capitalism—that of extreme competition. As the series tops the Netflix charts worldwide, over 130,000 Korean workers participated in a general strike on October 20.

In Hwang Dong-Hyuk’s massively popular fictional TV series Squid Game, debt-ridden contestants from all walks of life compete in a series of deadly playground games to win a nearly $40 million cash prize in a competition where losers face sudden death. United by their suffering under capitalism, the series tracks their miserable lives, dehumanizing degradation, and utter desperation to win.

Squid Game attracts huge viewing figures and considerable media interest because it reflects the real horrors of capitalism and its death agonies. / Image: Netflix, fair use

Through brilliant acting, production, and graphic violence, Squid Game reflects the real horrors of capitalism and its death agonies. No wonder it has attracted considerable media interest and racked up an astonishing number of views—including more than three billion minutes worth of streaming in a single week and household viewership of 142 million in the US alone.

Desperate

The show begins by introducing the main character, Seong Gi-Hun, as he negotiates a miserable life of gambling debts and strained family ties. When a stranger invites him to take part in a competition with a very large prize as a reward, the offer seems too good to refuse.

But the games are deadly serious, with the losers unceremoniously killed in myriad gruesome ways. Each brutal round of the game creates artificial scarcity to drive the participants towards ever more desperate measures. Food is unfairly distributed, violence is encouraged, and betrayal is rewarded. Divisions fester into bigotry as contestants eschew solidarity based on race, gender, age. Marx’s words ring true: “where want is generalized, all the old crap would revive.”

The players are free to leave the competition, if a majority vote to do so. Yet this freedom is an illusion, much like bourgeois democracy. After voting to return to their normal lives, the contestants are faced with the inescapable, grim reality of their existence. As one character dejectedly puts it, life is “just as bad out there as it is in here.” So hundreds “choose” to go back into the meat grinder—like lambs to the slaughter.

squid conference Image fair use
In the Squid Game, hundreds of impoverished Koreans compete in a series of deadly playground games to win a £30 million cash prize. / Image: Netflix, fair use

Rules are enforced by a rigid hierarchy of armed bodies of masked men. They maintain a complete monopoly on violence, using sniper rifles, pistols, and machine guns to execute players who break the rules or have lost a round. The parallels with the security apparatus of the South Korean ruling class are difficult to ignore.

Beyond the screen

Squid Game joins the growing genre of Korean social realism, with films like The Host and Parasite also exposing class divisions and exploitation in South Korea. Despite its surreal themes, Squid Game is not too far removed from the grueling material conditions facing South Korean workers in real life. The similarities between fiction and reality are no coincidence. As director Hwang Dong-Hyuk put it: “I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.”

2020 brought South Korea’s worst unemployment crisis since 1997. Exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, South Korea has seen over a decade of steady decline in employment. Amongst the youth, the figure stands at 9.5%. It’s little wonder that Korean youth have taken to calling their homeland “Hell Korea.”

Old age and retirement offer no hope for South Korean youth and workers. While in the US, “only” 27% of people aged 65 or older are living in poverty, 43% of the older South Korean population face poverty. With an aging population, and deaths outnumbering births, the elderly have become another downtrodden layer under capitalism.

Korean youth have taken to calling their homeland “Hell Korea.” The pressures of unemployment and debt have sent the masses of Korean workers onto the streets this month. / Image: ppptec, Twitter

For each of the Squid Game contestants, the large cash prize offers an escape from their debt bondage. In reality, South Korean household debt has sky rocketed, with the average household debt-to-disposable-income ratio sitting at 191%. In total, household debt is an astronomical $1.54 trillion.

While the fictional contestants of Squid Game and workers in the real world suffer the consequences of their debt, the South Korean government can find no better solution than to add to their own national debt with stimulus packages that mainly benefit the rich. In 2019, the national debt stood at $726 billion, which is predicted to hit $1 trillion by next year.

Towards the end of the series, we are introduced to the “VIP guests” who fund the Squid Game. While the contestants and game’s staff are Korean, these wealthy observers mostly have American accents. As in The Host, the American VIPs in Squid Game are callously indifferent to the suffering of the Korean characters, prioritizing material gain over any sense of morality. In the real world, US imperialism continues to exploit Korean workers and to use them as pawns to shore up its faltering position on a world scale.

Power in numbers

While the South Korean working class is exploited by both US imperialism and the chaebols—South Korean industrial conglomerates run by wealthy dynasties— it has a proud history of class militancy. In 2015, South Korea saw a wave of three general strikes. Led by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), tens of thousands of workers took to the streets to protest against right-wing President Park Geun-Hye and her anti-worker laws.

The KCTU mobilized for a massive general strike on October 20. To promote the strike, the KCTU has created their own advertisement in the style of Squid Game called “General Strike Game.” / Image: ppptec, Twitter

In response, the state launched vicious repression, with police brutality and targeted arrests of trade union leaders. Although the laws were passed with minor adjustments, the workers drew important lessons from the struggle. This month, the KCTU mobilized for a new general strike on October 20 to express the workers’ anger against the exploitative system. To promote the strike, the KCTU has created their own advertisement in the style of Squid Game called “General Strike Game.”

It is clear that global class consciousness is growing, driven by worsening material conditions. The suffering of Seong Gi-Hun and his fellow debt-ridden players in Squid Game is not restricted to the small screen, nor to South Korea itself. There is no solution under capitalism, any more than there is through blood-drenched games. For the South Korean working class, the task is that of revolution. A united working class movement united around concrete, socialist demands, with support from the KCTU and other workers’ organizations, could kick out the bosses and the imperialists, and bring the chaebols and all the key levers of the economy under democratic workers’ control. Such a revolution would spread like wildfire across the region, starting with North Korea, with far-reaching repercussions for China, Japan, and the entire world.


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